Civil ballistic missile warning needs federal leadership
Space weapons, robotics and cyber are key to defeating North Korea
North Korea's nuclear program threatens the United States beyond the traditional scenario of an intercontinental ballistic missile dropping a nuclear bomb on New York or Los Angeles. Instead of destroying a U.S. city, Kim Jong Un's regime could launch a far more debilitating attack by exploding a hydrogen warhead at high altitude above the East or West coasts.
While such an explosion would not directly kill or destroy, it would emit a powerful electromagnetic pulse that would fry key components of the nation's electrical grid and short-circuit electronic equipment. Such EMP weapons would not have much effect on our national security and military networks, which the U.S. has hardened to resist such an assault. But they would devastate civilian networks.
Imagine the effects if an EMP permanently destroyed the transformers that power our electrical grid. No electricity, water, sewage, transportation, internet, telephones, or refrigeration. Cars would not run, hospitals would close, food shipments could not move. Some strategists expect that the disruptions could kill millions and send much of the country to a pre-industrial standard of living. Witness the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, where storms only temporarily pulled down electrical wires. Launching such an attack probably already lies within North Korean capabilities after Pyongyang's successful tests earlier this year of ICBMs that can reach much of the continental United States.
Perhaps diplomacy can steer U.S.-North Korean relations away from an exchange of fire that would paralyze the U.S. civilian economy, destroy North Korea as a nation, and produce millions of casualties in South Korea (where Seoul, a city of more than 20 million, sits within artillery range of the North). But to prevent the Kim regime from holding the U.S. civilian population hostage to an EMP threat, or even to prevent an irrational North Korean attack, the United States should turn to new technologies to construct a far more effective missile defense now.
First, robotics enabled by space-based sensors and high-speed computing could build a missile defense shield over the region. Our current missile defense system only aims to stop ICBMs as they re-enter the atmosphere and plunge toward the United States. Hitting the warheads, and distinguishing actual threats from decoys, truly is akin to hitting a bullet with a bullet. The U.S. should instead construct a layered missile defense designed to stop the missiles before they leave East Asia. Advanced drones could patrol North Korean airspace to destroy Pyongyang's nuclear weapons arsenals, research facilities, and missile sites. Others could seek to fire on North Korean ICBMs in their initial boost phase, when the missiles are slow and at their most vulnerable. We could deploy Aegis anti-missile cruisers, equipped with upgraded radar and sensor systems, in the seas around North Korea to also fire on any launches. Other robotic weapon systems on the drawing boards, such as automated naval vessels and submarines, could help impose an air and sea blockade around North Korea. A combination of manned and unmanned forces and on the ground, sea, and air could knit together an anti-missile shield extending above Pyongyang.
Second, the United States should unleash the cyber arsenal that it has steadily built over the last decade. Cyber weapons alone cannot prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear missile. But North Korea needs networked computers to conduct research and development, such as the design of missiles and nuclear warheads and simulated testing, to carry out command and control of the weapons, and to conduct intelligence and reconnaissance. If the United States and its allies are going to use sanctions, which rely on the idea that inflicting economic pain on the North Korean people will place pressure on the Kim regime, it should adopt a similar view toward cyber warfare. U.S. cyber warriors could freeze or even transfer the accounts of the North Korean regime elites held in banks abroad and prevent the government from receiving, sending, or storing money anywhere in the global banking system. It should create the cyber version of a blockade on all North Korean economic relations with the rest of the world. Degrading communications and financial networks - even in the most primitive economy in the world - can increase the economic costs to Pyongyang of possessing its nuclear arsenal.
Third, the United States can accelerate its development of space-based weapons. Until now, the great powers have primarily used space for satellites to monitor foreign military deployments and to detect nuclear missile launches. But as competition from companies such as SpaceX have driven launch costs down by more than 90 percent, and as advances in robotics and communications have sparked a revolution in precision-guided munitions, the United States be able to soon deploy a rudimentary anti-missile system over North Korea. Firing down on North Korea from the ultimate high ground of space would add another layer of defense behind anti-missile cruisers and aerial drones. Future space platforms could quickly strike North Korean ground targets with conventional weapons that have the force of tactical nuclear warheads, but with no radioactive fallout.
New technologies cannot solve every problem, and they cannot supply the political will needed to answer the North Korean threat. But they can create more options beyond appeasement of a rogue regime and full scale conventional war that could defend against the unconventional threat of an EMP or other nuclear attack.
John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice from 2001-03. He is the co-author, most recently, of "Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules for War."