FPI Bulletin: Countering Ballistic Missile Threats from North Korea

April 27, 2016

Sanctions and diplomacy have failed to deter North Korea from expanding its nuclear program. Having conducted its fourth nuclear test at the beginning of this year, North Korea is completing its preparations to conduct a fifth. Pyongyang has simultaneously been expanding its ballistic missile program. While the Obama administration pursues punitive sanctions, North Korea flagrantly continues to evade U.N. Security Council resolutions.  To address the growing threat from North Korea, it is imperative for the United States to upgrade and expand its missile defense capabilities.

Defending the Homeland

The threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program is escalating dramatically. Admiral William Gortney, commander of NORTHCOM, has warned for more than a year that North Korea has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland.” He further cautions that the KN-08’s road-mobile capability “impedes our ability to find, fix, and finish the threat” of a North Korean ballistic missile strike. In response to this growing threat, missile defense systems must be funded to protect the United States should diplomacy fail.

In light of the growing challenge of destroying a North Korean ballistic missile before launch, it is increasingly important that our military be able to identify a warhead among debris and decoys during flight. As such, missile defense systems in the Pacific will benefit from additional radars which provide vital tracking information to land- and sea-based interceptor sites. The Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX) is one such platform: built on the same hull design as an oil rig, the mobility of the SBX grants it a deployable capacity to assist detecting a North Korean launch.

MDA’s FY17 Budget Request sought funding sufficient for the SBX to, in part, “conduct contingency operations for defense of the Homeland” in PACOM and NORTHCOM’s areas of responsibility. The Chairman’s Mark to the FY17 NDAA notes that the SBX has been “under-utilized” to date, and directed the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to brief the committee on the operational and cost requirements for greater utilization of this system in the future.

Heightened sensor discrimination can enhance the effectiveness of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) systems located in Fort Greely, AK and Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. GMD is the only system dedicated to protecting the homeland, and has until recently been the subject of controversy. It was in response to the North Korean missile threat that Obama administration decided to expand the GMD system from 30 to 44 interceptors in early 2013, reversing its previous opposition to the system. The last of these interceptors are scheduled to come on line next year.

Now that that the GMD system is approaching full capability relative to the North Korean threat, one option to complement this effort would be the conversion of Hawaii’s Aegis Ashore test site to a combat-ready facility capable of protecting the islands. Admiral Harry Harris, the current commander of PACOM, supports exploring this option. The HASC mark of the FY17 NDAA will keep the test site in operation and require the Pentagon to report on the efficacy of such an upgrade.

Enhancing Theater Defenses

In addition to strengthening missile defense systems that protect the homeland, the U.S. should deploy systems to help defend American allies and forward-deployed American soldiers. Following the fourth North Korean nuclear test in January, the U.S. and South Korea began formal talks regarding the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery on South Korean soil. Designed to protect against short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, THAAD batteries have successfully intercepted their targets in 11 out of 11 tests.

The THAAD system will complement and enhance the PAC-2 and PAC-3 missile defense batteries operating in South Korea. Because the THAAD system is capable of intercepting threat missiles outside the atmosphere, it offers a “layered” defense when combined with the relatively low-altitude intercept capabilities of the Patriot system. Even more importantly, the THAAD system is paired with an AN/TPY-2 radar, which can scan a significantly larger battle space than current systems on the peninsula allow. This radar capability allows earlier detection, greater discrimination, and improved sharing of information among multiple sensors and shooters.

These attributes of the prospective THAAD deployment will enhance the defense of American interests throughout the Asia Pacific and may create an opening for greater trilateral cooperation to include Japan. Chairman Thornberry’s draft bill includes a “Sense of Congress” section on such cooperation, which has room to grow after a 2014 agreement on intelligence sharing and last year’s breakthrough on historical disputes.

Protecting the Missile Defense Budget

Despite this progress and potential for future cooperation, the $7.5 billion request for missile defense programs in fiscal year 2017 falls $822 million short of last year’s funding. This is largely a consequence of the termination of production of interceptors for the GMD system. A HASC provision requiring future reports on whether this cut will harm the system suggests concerns in Congress, which are compounded by other reductions that will harm missile defense research and development.

At best, the proposed MDA budget provides the minimum to maintain and enhance U.S. defenses against North Korean and other ballistic missile threats. The current House version of the NDAA authorizes additional funds over the President’s request, but so long as defense spending is constrained by the harmful cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, critical U.S. defenses will be hard pressed to keep pace with growing dangers.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More