In response to North Korea’s New Year’s threat of testing a nuclear-capable ICBM, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles advocating for the United States to shoot down the North Korean IBCM (intercontinental-range ballistic missile) as a legitimate option to be considered. We question their positions of the capability and justification of intercepting a North Korean test-launched ICBM that is not targeting the U.S. homeland, U.S. territory and allies with the current deployed sea- and land-based missile defense systems of the United States.
Instead of attempting to intercept the North Korean test ICBM, it would be far more valuable and much more important to the national security of our nation to put every available sensor asset from space, land and sea to characterize, study, track and provide cross section data of the ICBM’s warhead, its debris and staging as it goes from launch to impact to provide exact modeling and simulation that will gain greater reliability and confidence of our missile defense systems designed and deployed to defeat this threat. Justification on the world stage of intercepting a North Korean test ICBM that is not threatening population or territory of the United States or its allies will be challenging regardless of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions because the United States and its allies regularly and annually conduct ICBM tests themselves. Adding to this challenge would be the declaration of North Korea of its ICBM test as a satellite launch to the international community which it has done four previous times.
Between 1998 and 2016, North Korea has launched six ICBM-type rockets from two general locations in two directions; east over Japan and south, parallel to the Philippines. To intercept a non-threatening North Korean ICBM test missile on these two flight paths, defining the exact location of where it would land before it is launched is critical data enabling current deployed U.S. missile defense capabilities to have a realistic opportunity to intercept if in range. The United States Ground-based Midcourse Defense System with interceptors in Alaska and California has the range in the mid-Pacific but would be out of range for an intercept in the South Pacific. In 2008, the U.S. sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system (Operation Burnt Frost) shot down a satellite traveling at speeds similar to an ICBM, but to intercept an ICBM, Aegis ships, with a small defendable area, would have to be prepositioned with accurate knowledge of the projected impact point of the missile for an intercept opportunity. Aegis ships have not been designed or tested for ICBM intercept with the exception of the satellite shoot down in 2008.
If the North Korean ICBM test missile is not threatening territory of the United States or its allies, it is much more valuable to study it and apply lessons learned from it to increase interceptor reliability and confidence in the future then it would be to attempt to intercept when it’s out of range and where the impact point is not known.
It is of note that President Obama canceled the 747 Airborne Laser (ABL) when he first came into office that successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in-flight with a chemical laser in the boost phase. President-elect Trump could re-initiate and increase investment in directed energy lasers on UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) platforms for boost phase missile defense that would provide more options to intercept than is available today.