North Korean tests augment calls for boosting missile defense systems

North Korean tests augment calls for boosting missile defense systems
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North Korea’s stubbornness on its missile program has given a boost to U.S. lawmakers who are pushing for more money to expand and improve missile defense systems.

“We have not advanced missile defense as much as we should,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “We need a major ramp-up of missile defense that might help get the Chinese’s attention, but it also helps the Japanese and others feel more secure that we’re serious about our commitment to defend them.”

Opponents of spending more on missile defense, meanwhile, say the United States has already poured enough money into a costly system and that even the best system doesn’t guarantee full protection from a potential attack. Critics also worry that sending more defense systems to East Asia risks upsetting a delicate diplomatic balance. 

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North Korea appeared to shrug off a warning last week from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who during a visit to Asia said that all options are on the table to deal with North Korea’s missile and nuclear ambitions, including military action.

Two days after Tillerson’s statement, Pyongyang conducted a ground jet test of a newly developed high-thrust missile engine. South Korean officials have said the test showed “meaningful progress” on the North’s development of more sophisticated technology. 

Then, on Wednesday, North Korea launched a missile from its east coast. Though the test appeared to fail — with U.S. Pacific Command saying the missile exploded “within seconds” — the furious pace of testing since last year has left the Korean Peninsula on edge.

Asked this week about North Korea’s continued tests even after Tillerson’s warning, Thornberry highlighted a need for more missile defense spending.

“If you look at what both Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] and I have put out for the FY18 budget, it includes a ramp-up for missile defense, and that’s the reason we specifically laid out what we thought that money should be spent on,” he said. “It’s not just a question of numbers on a page. It’s specific capability.” 

U.S. missile defense breaks down into two broad categories: those that can be deployed overseas, known as theater systems, and those based within U.S. borders.

The theater systems include the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, located on Navy ships and in the “Aegis Ashore” system in Romania and Poland, which is still being developed; the ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) for short- and medium-range ballistic missiles; and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), considered one of the most advanced with a range of 200 kilometers. 

The homeland system is known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) and has sites in California and Alaska.

President Trump has promised to spend more on missile defense, calling for a “state-of-the-art” system in a policy position posted on the White House website after the inauguration. 

“We need a form of shield. We want to protect our country,” Trump said at a campaign rally in September.

As part of a broader executive action on military readiness signed in January, Trump ordered a ballistic missile defense review to “identify ways of strengthening missile-defense capabilities, rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities, and highlighting priority funding areas.”

At the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy conference this week, National Security Council Senior Director Christopher Ford said the review is ongoing and that it’s too early to say what the results will be. 

“I’m afraid it’s too early to know where this review is going to come out, but certainly the North Korean and Iranian missile threats are accelerating. As those programs continue apace, it’s hardly a surprise that we’re looking afresh at what the right answer is and trying to balance these issues,” said Ford, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation.

The budget outline proposal released by the administration last week does not mention missile defense, so it’s unclear how much of the proposed $603 billion base defense budget would be intended for that use.

But Thornberry and McCain say missile defense is one of the reasons they’re hoping to boost defense spending even further beyond what Trump has requested — they’re pushing for a $640 billion base budget.

“For the past 10 years, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) budget has declined 14 percent. Yet the threats from ballistic missiles only continues to grow,” McCain wrote in his January whitepaper arguing for $640 billion, citing threats from North Korea, Iran, Russia and China. “Given this, the United States must expand its ground-based midcourse defense system, including an additional interceptor site in the eastern United States. 

“Similarly, regional missile defenses should also be increased. The Aegis ashore sites in Romania and Poland should continue as planned, but with a greater number of interceptors. Missile defense systems must also be modernized to keep pace with our advancing adversaries.”

Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, warned against “too open-ended a wish list” on missile defense. 

“We need to think a little more carefully about what would be constructive,” he said. “A blanket ‘rah rah, sis, boom, bah’ on missile defense is not a thoughtful or appropriate approach.”

No system is a perfect, he added. For example, if North Korea were to fire enough missiles at one time, that could overwhelm any system. 

He also highlighted diplomatic concerns with sending more batteries to Asia. Beijing has been fiercely opposed to the one THAAD battery recently sent to South Korea, fearing the system’s powerful radars could be trained on China.

“Clearly the Chinese feel this is aimed at them or don’t see a meaningful difference, and whatever we do to enhance capabilities is going to boomerang,” Pollack said.

Pollack said the $36 billion U.S.-based GMD has tested incredibly poorly and cost too much. A single test of the system costs $200 million or more, he said. 

The latest annual report from the Pentagon’s weapons testing office, released in January, said GMD “has demonstrated a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.”

Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiDem rep. slams Trump’s LaVar Ball attacks as racially motivated Armed Services Dem: Pentagon not forthcoming about Niger attack Rivalry on right emerges between ‘the two Marks’ MORE (D-Calif.), who's been critical of the GMD, said it would cost too much and do too little to open another GMD site. Rather, he said, the United States should focus on improving the systems it has.

“We simply do not know and would not likely be able to afford the number of missiles necessary if there were a multiple-missile attack, and therefore in my view, it’s of little value to invest significant new funds into additional GMD systems,” he said.

Sending missile defense systems to the theater, such as THAAD to South Korea, is useful, he said, while also cautioning of the limitations. 

“Certainly there’s a need, and they can be useful for, again, a limited missile attack,” he said. “However it appears as though our adversaries know that and are looking at least with medium- and short-range missiles to be able to be overwhelming.”