Alaska lobbies for defense boost after North Korea launch

KCNA via Getty Images

Calls for a more significant U.S. investment in missile defense are escalating after North Korea carried out its first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week, potentially putting Alaska in the nation’s range for the first time.

Tuesday’s test — which leader Kim Jong Un called a “gift” to America for Fourth of July — elicited calls to spend more on missile defense at home and deploy more systems to Southeast Asia as time and options for reining in Pyongyang dwindle.

{mosads}“Alaskans awoke to disturbing news that North Korea tested a missile that some experts say may be able to reach Alaska in the near future,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) wrote on Facebook Tuesday. “Now more than ever, it’s imperative for Alaskans and the rest of the nation that we be prepared.

“That’s why I recently introduced a bill — the majority of which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act passed out of committee last week — that will significantly boost our missile defense capabilities and keep America safe.”

Still, opponents of missile defense argue it’s a costly investment for something that cannot fully protect from North Korea and warn that sending more systems to South Korea and Japan could worsen regional tensions by angering China.

North Korea still lacks the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on its ICBM, and one test does not mean the missile can reliably hit the United States. 

But the news put into focus statements over the past few months from U.S. officials warning that North Korea is on the path to an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland and prompted calls from Alaskan officials for more protection.

“Recent news of North Korea’s efforts to build up nuclear weapons capabilities underscores why it’s so important to increase America’s military presence in Alaska,” Gov. Bill Walker (I) said in a statement to The Hill on Wednesday. “Given our proximity to growing foreign powers, and this week’s test, that need is now more urgent than ever.”

The United States has a range of missile defense systems, from the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) with sites in Alaska and California to the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense on Navy ships.

There’s also the ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability for short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, considered the most advanced of the systems with the longest range, at about 200 kilometers.

For months, defense hawks in Congress have been pushing to beef up investment in missile defense because of North Korea, which has fired 17 missiles in 11 tests this year alone.

In line with that, both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA passed by the respective Armed Services committees include more money for missile defense.

The House version of the bill would authorize $2.5 billion above the president’s budget request to buy more interceptors for the Aegis, Patriot and THAAD systems, as well as for additional investments in the GMD system.

The House bill would also require the Missile Defense Agency to craft plans for a space-based sensor layer and a space-based intercept layer for ballistic missile defense.

The Senate version of the bill would provide a total of $8.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency. That includes buying up to 28 more interceptors for the GMD system, as well as beginning to develop new missile defense sensor technologies in space.

The bill would also call for a report analyzing the potential for up to 100 ground-based interceptors.

In the wake of Tuesday’s missile test, missile defense boosters highlighted the relevant provisions in the defense bills.

“As the chairman of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which has oversight over our homeland missile defense system, I am committed to ensuring our country has an effective defense to protect our citizens from the rogue regime in Pyongyang,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said in a statement Tuesday. “The FY 2018 Senate defense authorization bill, recently approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, strengthens this system and authorizes additional funding to further improve its capabilities.”

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, called the additional investment in missile defense in the NDAA a “good start.”

The “sweet spot,” he said, would be about 10 percent to 20 percent more than what the United States is currently spending.

He said the missile defense systems the United States has in Southeast Asia right now would be just a “speed bump” should North Korea decide to attack with the thousand or so short-, medium- and, now, long-range missiles it has.

He advocated for sending a second THAAD system to South Korea, if Seoul will allow it, and sending Japan its first THAAD or the Aegis Ashore system, which Tokyo has expressed interest in.

Still, he said missile defense is no “silver bullet” to dealing with North Korea.

“We’re not going to be able to spend the missile problem away,” he said.

Indeed, opponents of missile defense warn of a vicious cycle in which Pyongyang continues to build up its arsenal as a response to the United States deploying more missile defense systems. 

“They’re going to build more and more offensive missiles to overwhelm our systems, which is the opposite of what we want them to do,” said Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon weapons tester who is now a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The same could be said of China, he added, which worries that the missile defense systems constrain its own military capabilities.

In response to the United States sending a THAAD battery to South Korea, China has launched a pressure campaign that has included everything from boycotts of South Korean businesses to rap music videos railing against the system.

As for spending more on GMD interceptors, Coyle said the cost is too high for a system that has failed 60 percent of its tests.

The most recent test in May, the first of the system’s ability to intercept an ICBM, was successful. That single test cost $244 million and didn’t necessarily recreate real wartime conditions, Coyle said.

“North Korea keeps getting better and better, and time is not on our side,” he said, advocating for talks with Pyongyang.

Still, with Alaska now apparently in North Korea’s range, members of Congress have honed in on missile defense as a must.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) “continues to support new investments in our nation’s missile defense systems and infrastructure,” a spokesman said in an email Wednesday. “He believes the recent actions by North Korea, a rogue and irrational regime, underscores the importance of the Alaska’s missile defense systems, including interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska and the future long range discrimination radar at Clear Air Force Station.”

Tags Deb Fischer Don Young
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