There is now evidence from credible analysts that the North Korean ICBM test shot had a problem: the warhead shredded on re-entry. That is good news for the United States and probably for anyone else facing a threat from North Korea, which certainly includes South Korea and Japan, and maybe others including even China. In fact, from what we saw in the Middle East when Iran launched five short range missiles at ISIS bases in Syria in a retaliatory strike, Iran has problems. While the Iranians tried to make out the missile attack was a big success, the truth is it was a big failure. Five missiles were fired, and three of them never arrived in Syria. Two others missed their targets by some distance, up to a mile or more. These rockets are North Korean designs produced under some form of license by the Iranians. It tells us that North Korea’s rockets miss their targets, perhaps because of the design of their warheads or for other reasons.
Until recently the only significant shootdown of a missile by a ballistic missile system was Israel’s Arrow ABM. On March 16 it took out a ballistic missile over Jordanian territory on a trajectory that was said aimed at Israel. There were statements made that the type of missile fired at Israel was an SA-5, but experts don’t think so. They believe Syria or possibly Hezbollah launched a missile very similar to the missiles that Iran launched against ISIS targets. This makes a great deal of sense, because every time Iran has shipped missiles to Hezbollah via Syria, the Israeli Air Force has attacked and, presumably destroyed them on the ground either parked or in transit. It also shows that Israel’s ballistic missile defense system works.
The United States does not now have the Israeli Arrow system or the other missile killers in the Israeli inventory (Iron Dome and David’s Sling). Iron Dome is mainly focused on destroying short range missiles and artillery shells. Israel has used it successfully intercepting over 1200 rockets.
David’s Sling is a potent system using a rocket interceptor called Stunner which travels at Mach 7.5. Raytheon, one of Israel’s partners, is developing a proposed U.S. missile air defense system to replace the Patriot, called PAAC-4 ( Patriot Advanced Affordable Capability-4 ). The PAAC-4 uses the Stunner interceptor rocket. Israel also has other systems under active development including Iron Beam, a laser kill system and Arrow 3 (now deployed in part), an exoatmospheric system jointly funded by the U.S. Missile Defense System. Arrow 3 is designed to kill ICBM threats and also could be used as an anti-satellite weapon.
The U.S. has tactical and strategic ballistic missile systems with the most widely known: the Hawk, Patriot, THAAD, and partially deployed Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. The Hawk is all but retired, and Patriot is mainly a tactical system. The Navy’s Aegis air and missile defense system featuring an updating intercept rocket, the RIM 161 SM-3 is capable of destroying intermediate range ballistic missiles and with some tweaking some satellites. At one point Israel was interested in the missile but opted instead to develop the more advanced Arrow 3. RIM 161 and Aegis are evolving systems and the U.S. shares this technology with Japan.
Then there is THAAD which is a more ambitious system that, like the RIM-161 is a hit to kill missile defense system aimed at short and medium range missiles like many that have been launched by North Korea. The U.S. has a THAAD system on Guam and has now stationed a system in South Korea.
Finally, there is the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD). Unlike THAAD which is intended to intercept missiles during their terminal phase, GMD is aimed at destroying them in midcourse. It is the only system the U.S. has that could be capable of destroying an ICBM launched by an adversary such as Iran or North Korea. There are some 40 GMD interceptors that are deployed –in Alaska at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The GMD has a troubled history at best, with many failed and incomplete tests. GMD, like THAAD, is a hit-to-kill system.
The U.S. systems and the latest Israeli systems are designed to be able to pick up decoys and to some degree maneuver against the target.
The U.S. problem is it has unproven systems, with the exception of Patriot and the Agis. Meanwhile, the potential scope of the threat from places such as North Korea and Iran makes it clear that in a case of a real attack the U.S. missile defense system could come up short. We can add to that the fact the North Koreans are moving toward a submarine based ballistic missile capability and if they are successful, they will be able to move the threat closer to the U.S. and, at the same time hide it from counterattack. While most of the North Korean submarines are old, they are capable and will do the job, even if they are subsequently destroyed.
The U.S. has spent tens of billions on missile defense systems that don’t seem to measure up to the scope of the threat, either because they are problematic systems such as GMD or because there are just not enough of them to protect either the United States or its allies and friends. This gives an otherwise impoverished country like North Korea an undeniable leverage not only against the U.S. but America’s allies. The same is the case with Iran, although there at least Israel is working hard to blunt Iran’s missile threat.
What can the United States do under the circumstances?
In the near term, the U.S. maintains an ability to destroy intermediate range and short range ballistic missiles. AEGIS deployments near North Korea offer some counterbalance to North Korea’s missiles for now. Once North Korea can deploy real ICBMs with effective reentry vehicles, then the nature of the threat changes.
What can the U.S. do?
- Deploy Aegis and let the North Korean’s know we are prepared to shoot down any further missile launches. That will get their attention and temper their enthusiasm for confronting the United States.
- Enlarge the number of THAAD missiles in South Korea. While there is no assurance THAAD will work, there is also no assurance it will not. South Korea has recently asked for more THAAD missiles.
- Consider an alternative to the GMD such as cooperation on Arrow 3 with Israel. This could make a big difference if the Israeli system turns out as good as it so far appears. Israel’s Army has already deployed Arrow 3.
- Whether GMD or Arrow 3 or both, deploy enough of them to protect the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska. My preference is Arrow 3 because it has a better chance to work effectively given Israel’s experience with Arrow 2 and other systems.
- Make a deal with Israel to cooperatively surround Iran to neutralize its missile capability, both by putting in place an in-depth missile defense system or systems and for preparing a coordinated program to take out Iran’s missile capabilities using air, naval and land assets.
- Consider moving Arrow 3 to Saudi Arabia, deployed under U.S. control. Saudi Arabia won’t complain, and Israel won’t worry it will fall into hostile hands. Encircling Iran is the best tactic to thwart Iran’s outsized ambitions. Interestingly no one complained about Iran’s launch of missiles against targets in Syria –they should have been hauled up in front of the UN Security Council if the UN had any value.
- Similarly deploying Arrow 2 or Arrow 3 in Japan under U.S. control would also pump up defenses for Japan against any threat from North Korea.
- Make sure enough money is available to move quickly. The window of opportunity is starting to close. The latest North Korean ICBM demonstration and its failed re-entry vehicle buys us some time, but not much.
*This commentary has been posted on Bryen’s Blog, on August 2, 2017