Taking North Korea's missile threat seriously is long overdue
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For the past 20 years, there has been a debate within the U.S. intelligence community and among academic experts, military commanders and government officials over the extent to which there were ballistic missile threats to America, specifically from North Korea.

In 1994 for example, top defense experts in Congress warned North Korea was in the process of both building nuclear weapons but also missiles of all ranges. Even so, for much of the decade after the end of the Cold War, equally strong forces disagreed, minimizing the North Korean threat and cautioning that no response such as building missile defenses was then needed.

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It was not until 1999 that the Congress passed and the Clinton administration signed into law legislation (The National Missile Defense Act) to declare it the official policy of the United States to deploy a ballistic missile defense.

But the opponents of missile defense continued to play down the significance of North Korean missile tests or missed in their assessments how advanced North Korean missile capabilities were.

This was not unexpected as the Rumsfeld Commission sent a side letter to the Congress that was unanimous in concluding the Intelligence Community’s ability to monitor, assess and warn relative to the threat posed by ballistic missile “was eroding” due to “emerging capabilities in a larger number of hostile states; • increased availability of relevant data, technologies and expertise to those states; and, • more sophisticated resort to cover, deception and denial by them.”

Furthermore, the Commission explained “On more than one occasion the Commission dutifully sat through briefs only to find later we had not received accurate or complete information on the ballistic missile and WMD capabilities of countries of concern (because) briefers did not have access to the information” the Commissioners did!

The Commission also presciently warned that not enough attention was being paid by the Intelligence Community to “the technical state, pace and potential growth paths for ballistic missile and WMD programs in countries of concern; the likelihood that buyers are cooperating among themselves to enhance their respective capabilities'; (and) the effects of foreign deception and denial activities on the ability of the US to monitor and assess the threat.”  

Although the Bush administration warned of DPRK attempts to build an ICBM as early as July 2001, opposition to accepting the reality of such a threat remained. This was particularly the case when the Bush administration signaled it would within the next year junk the 1972 ABM treaty that prohibited ballistic missile defenses for the United States.

So strong was the reaction to the Bush initiative that the administration was accused of fabricating such information as the North Korean nuclear enrichment or the extent of Pyongyang’s missile capabilities, although subsequently evidence emerged that confirmed the threat warnings were right on the money.

Critics of missile defenses were often blinded by one closely held assumption: that support for missile defenses and junking the ABM treaty was due to an animosity to arms control. Thus, ABM supporters thought of the treaty as the “cornerstone of American strategic stability,” without which offensive weapons on each side would skyrocket to overcome defenses.

Ironically, this idea was turned on its head when the United States and Russian in 2002 agreed to the Moscow Treaty, in which nuclear warhead deployments would drop 64 percent, greater than any other strategic nuclear weapons agreement in history, even as the ABM treaty was being junked.

As the decade continued, North Korean missile tests accelerated and in 2006 Pyongyang exploded for the first time a nuclear device. But despite such tests, the United States was continually assured by leaked assessments from the government that there was not yet any threat to the United States itself, as opposed to its allies in the Northwest Pacific region. Other on the record reports were much more realistic, such as those from Robert Walpole of the CIA.

As Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation explained in a 2011 memo, a North Korean 1998 launch of a Tae Po Dong rocket that demonstrated a capability to put Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States at risk, confirmed by a surprisingly accurate 2001 intelligence report that concluded North Korea could launch a multi-hundred kilo warhead some 10,000 kilometers. Fortunately, due in part to such assessments, the Bush administration was able to secure support for a missile defense of the country consisting of 30 interceptors in Alaska and California, but not a more robust capability.

In fact, over the last decade, as the North Korean missile and nuclear threat visibly expanded, missile defense spending declined some $40 billion compared to the 2008 projected budgets based on a considerably less serious North Korean threat says Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute.

Hopefully now that changed and the ballistic missile defense review now underway will conclude that the United States and its allies need to step up smartly and seriously increase our support for robust missile defenses, most particularly boost phase and space based capabilities. Certainly the Congressional boost to missile defense in the defense bills is a welcome first step.

Even before the July 4 and July 29 ICBM test by North Korea, our senior military commanders were warning that North Korea had the ability to “range” the United States with ballistic missiles, could miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit onto a ballistic missile, and had developed solid fueled missiles that unlike liquid fueled rockets take considerably less time to ready for launch.

Finally, official reports are catching up with what our commanders know.  A new intelligence report recently given to Congress concludes that indeed North Korea can now range the entire United States with a ballistic missile and within a year may be able to do so consistently and reliably.

Such accurate threat assessments are not a surprise to those analysts that have been urging the United States adopt both missile defenses for the United States but also a comprehensive strategy to stop the threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse nuclear attack. Such a threat could be surreptitiously delivered by missiles from the sea, a possibility almost universally ignored despite recent DPRK submarine activity. In that such warheads do not have to go through re-entry when they explode tens of kilometers above the earth’s surface, re-entry capability is irrelevant.  

Accurately assessing the threat, while welcome, is long overdue. Thus it is imperative we both protect our vulnerable infrastructure from EMP as well as build the most effective defenses, especially space based sensors and interceptors, that can prevent the use of nuclear warheads against the United States, especially those delivered by ballistic missiles.

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.


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