North Korea recently launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that, upon developing a successful reentry capability, would be capable of hitting any part of the U.S. homeland. This test marks the 23rd North Korean test launch since February, and there’s little reason to suspect that testing will not continue. After the launch, its provocative leader, Kim Jong Un, said North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Though the Hermit Kingdom may not yet have a fully developed ICBM capable of launching a nuclear weapon at a targeted city within the U.S., that development may not be too distant. To protect against the threat of a nuclear strike, America needs to develop and expand its missile defense capabilities.
U.S. and South Korean officials believe Pyongyang could be able to launch a reliable nuclear-capable ICBM by early 2018. The U.S. has not taken the threat lightly, pursuing sanctions, diplomatic overtures towards China, and partnering with South Korea on exercises to show the might of the U.S. military. It has also coordinated with South Korea, despite opposition from China, to place the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea to protect its ally and the 100,000 Americans who currently live on the Peninsula. THAAD, a welcome evolution of missile defense, is capable of intercepting mid-range missiles within a circumference of about 200 km or 124 miles. The U.S. also has its Patriot missile defense system in South Korea for intercepting short-range launches. Yet with North Korea’s repeated ICBM tests and the looming threat that missiles could soon hit American territory, the U.S. should focus not only on protecting our allies and servicemen abroad, but on a system capable of intercepting ICBMs.
Importantly, the first branch of government is also thinking about the long term consequences of belligerent nations someday using the world’s most destructive weapons. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed Congress and is sitting on the president’s desk as of November 30th, recognizes the importance of missile defense.
The NDAA authorizes $12.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which represents a much needed increase from Obama administration funding levels. The previous administration requested a woefully inadequate $9.7 billion for its overall missile defense program, which was roughly $1.3 billion shy of a 2009 Independent Working Group’s recommendation.
While the funding levels set via the recently passed NDAA represent a substantial improvement, Congress will still need to appropriate all of the money it authorizes in the bill. Given the unique and growing threats from North Korea, the possibility of an increasingly powerful nuclear Iran, and the nuclear capabilities of our more conventional adversary in Russia, Congress ought not to hesitate in appropriating these funds.
The NDAA allows for expanding existing capabilities and developing new capabilities. As of this year, The United States deploys 36 interceptors for its ground-based missile defense (GMD) system, a system capable of intercepting an intercontinental ballistic missile in the midcourse phase of its flight, with four interceptors in California and 32 in Alaska. Experts have recommended 44 interceptors as a minimum number sufficient to protect the west coast, Hawaii and Alaska. The NDAA authorizes up to 20 additional interceptors for placement in Alaska, which would put the West Coast well over the recommended minimum. If consistent with the recommendations of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review that commenced in 2017, Congress should appropriate the funds for these additional interceptors.
The current GMD system is focused on defending the western portions of U.S. territory, but capabilities should be extended to provide missile defense testing and deployment options in the Midwest and East Coast. Fortunately, the NDAA authorizes “an identification of potential sites in the United States, whether existing or new on the East Coast or in the Midwest, for the deployment of 104 ground-based interceptors.” The bill also recognizes the need to develop a robust, multi-layered missile defense system, by authorizing development of space-based sensors and interceptors, and systems capable of destroying ballistic missiles in the boost phase of flight.
The Midwestern and East Coast GMD deployment, as well as space-based interceptor development, are contingent on an ongoing Ballistic Missile Defense review conducted by the MDA. If the review recommends developing such systems, the Pentagon would be wise to pursue these capabilities.
While denuclearization is a noble goal with respect to North Korea, it has proved an elusive one. In the meantime, vulnerable homeland assets should be protected by a robust missile defense program. The recent NDAA represents a substantial step in the right direction. Congress should appropriate the funds authorized in the bill to best keep America and its allies safe.