Missiles on land, at sea and in space are key to US defense against North Korea
© Getty

Everyone understands that North Korea’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, especially their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), pose an existential threat to the United States and worldwide stability. The London Economist recently noted only a fool could fail to be alarmed by the apparent crisis.

Even China and Russia abandoned their usual efforts to block UN initiatives to reign in Kim Jong Un, joining a 15-to-0 United Nations Security Council vote to impose major sanctions on North Korea. 

Clearly, we need effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to counter this threat, and have near-term possibilities that can and should be improved while we consider even more capable future systems.

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For example, our Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) can protect our troops, other Americans and the citizens of Guam in response to Kim Jong Un’s threat to attack them. They can and should help defend South Korea as well. Israel’s Iron Dome system, which the US helped develop, could help defend Seoul against artillery attack as it has demonstrated in protecting Israel.

 

Our ground-based defense (GMD) system in Alaska and California can protect the continental U.S. against a limited ICBM attack. And the Navy’s Aegis BMD system provides an integrated defense capability, including against ICBMs. Indeed, existing U.S. and Japanese Aegis BMD ships can be effective against ballistic missiles of all ranges.

The Aegis BMD software may need some updating to help ships closest to ICBM launch sites to shoot down North Korea’s ICBMs while their rockets still burn—within a minute or so after launch. To meet this timeline, those Aegis BMD ship Captains must be pre-authorized to fire their “boost-phase” interceptors. But the Navy should be funded to develop the needed software and to train the Aegis crews to accomplish this mission.

Tests have demonstrated that Aegis BMD ships can intercept ballistic missiles later while they are still on the way up in their ascent phase; more distant ships may intercept them as they coast above the atmosphere at ICBM velocities—as demonstrated in 2008 when the Navy’s first minimally tested interceptor shot down a satellite; and those more distant Aegis BMD ships can shoot them down as they begin their descent toward U.S. territory.

Aegis Ashore interceptors, such as those operational in Romania and soon to be operational in Poland, can also play a major role—and in addition to its deployment overseas, such defensive sites should be considered of deployment near America’s coasts to protect us from attacking ballistic missiles launched from nearby vessels, especially off our currently undefended coast around the Gulf of Mexico. Since we test the Aegis Ashore system in Hawaii, they already help defend those important islands, home to U.S. Pacific Command.

Demonstration testing of these time-urgent capabilities would have deterrent value, especially given the previously demonstrated high Aegis BMD system kill probability.

President Trump could offer that America has no wish to interfere with North Korea’s legitimate space exploration so long as Kim Jong Un permits the IAEA to inspect payloads before they are launched. Otherwise, he should indicate we will shoot them down to protect our security interests. Needed inspections could employ technology developed to verify treaties between the United States and Russia.

China is very important—most would say our only hope—to developing a lasting situation to contain North Korea. China’s recent UN vote is a positive sign, whatever may be its concerns re. military encounters in the South China Sea.  Also, we may be near an agreement with China to work together to exterminate ISIS. But we have very serious differences with China, which President Trump and his diplomats must explore to find mutual advantages.

Given the current situation, there should be no compromise in the ongoing negotiations that would undercut our efforts to assure our current and potential BMD system capabilities are effective.

In these uncertain times, we need strong congressional support, especially to strengthen our defenses. That should be a top priority when Congress returns to finalize the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018.  House and Senate Armed Services Committees Chairmen Thornberry (R-Texas) and McCain (R-Ariz.) should support assuring that our future BMD capabilities are the best we can build.

Congress should also direct the secretary of defense to again consider space-based defenses that were the heart of the President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but which were canceled in 1993 by the Clinton administration and have remained dormant ever since. 

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was President Reagan’s chief negotiator in the Geneva Defense and Space Talks and President George H.W. Bush’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) director, where he initiated Aegis BMD, THAAD and GMD acquisition programs, as well as space-based defenses. Robert Laidley is president of the Atlantic and Conservation Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.