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Considered opinionNo, we cannot shoot down North Korea’s missiles

By Joe Cirincione

Published 19 September 2017

The number one reason we don’t shoot down North Korea’s missiles is that we cannot. The latest North Korean missile to fly over Japan did so at 475 miles over Japan at the apogee of its flight path. Neither Japan nor the United States could have intercepted the missile. None of the U.S. theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high. It is hundreds of kilometers too high for the Aegis interceptors deployed on Navy ships off Japan. Even higher for the THAAD systems in South Korea and Guam. Way too high for the Patriot systems in Japan, which engage largely within the atmosphere.

The number one reason we don’t shoot down North Korea’s missiles is that we cannot. The latest North Korean missile to fly over Japan did so at 475 miles over Japan at the apogee of its flight path. Neither Japan nor the United States could have intercepted the missile. None of the U.S. theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high. It is hundreds of kilometers too high for the Aegis interceptors deployed on Navy ships off Japan. Even higher for the THAAD systems in South Korea and Guam. Way too high for the Patriot systems in Japan, which engage largely within the atmosphere.

Our anti-missile systems have never been realistically tested against any of these simple countermeasures [the North Koreans could take]. This is one reason that the Pentagon’s current director of operational testing is much more cautious in his assessments than missile defense program officials. “GMD has demonstrate a limited capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran,” he reports. Moreover, it is impossible, he says, to “quantitatively assess GMD performance due to lack of ground tests” and “the reliability and availability of the operational GBI’s [Ground-Based Interceptors] is low, and the MDA continues to discover new failure modes during testing.”  

Yet, we have spent $40 billion on the GMD system and over $320 billion on scores of missile defense systems over the past few decades. You have to wonder exactly what these tests are for: give the troops the protection they need or give the contractors the next program payment?

There is no need to rely on the word of missile defense boosters, or, for that matter, trust the analysis of jaded missile defense critics. We could stop testing for success and begin testing for actual performance, with “red team – blue team” tests, for example, to simulate a determined foe. We could also order an objective scientific assessment. For example, the American Physical Society could conduct a thorough examination of the feasibility and capability of kinetic missile defense weapons, just as they did for directed-energy weapons in 1987. That study popped the balloon of false claims about these weapons, the original basis for the “Star Wars” program begun by the Reagan administration, concluding that it would be decades before we would know if such weapons were even feasible.

North Korea’s ballistic missile threat is real. We need to know if our missile defenses are for real.

Read the full article: Joe Cirincione, “No, We Cannot Shoot Down North Korea’s Missiles,” Defense One (17 September 2017)