North Korea recently launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that, upon developing a successful re-entry capability, would be capable of hitting any part of the U.S. homeland. This test marks the 23rd North Korean test launch since February, and there’s little reason to suspect testing will not continue.
After the launch, leader Kim Jong-un said North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
Though the Hermit Kingdom may not yet have a fully developed ICBM capable of launching a nuclear weapon at a targeted city within the United States, that development may not be too distant. To protect against the threat of a nuclear strike, America needs to develop and expand its missile defense capabilities.
U.S. and South Korean officials believe Pyongyang could be able to launch a reliable nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile by early 2018. The United States has not taken the threat lightly, pursuing sanctions, diplomatic overtures toward China and partnering with South Korea on exercises to show military might.
It also has coordinated with South Korea, despite opposition from China, to place the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system in South Korea to protect its ally and the 100,000 Americans who currently live on the peninsula. THAAD, a welcome evolution of missile defense, is capable of intercepting mid-range missiles within a circumference of 124 miles.
The United States also has its Patriot missile defense system in South Korea for intercepting short-range launches. Yet with North Korea’s repeated ICBM tests and the looming threat that missiles could soon hit American territory, the United States should focus on protecting our allies and servicemen abroad and a system capable of intercepting ICBMs.
Importantly, the first branch of government is thinking about the long-term consequences of belligerent nations someday using the world’s most destructive weapons. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed Congress and was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 12, recognizes the importance of missile defense.
The NDAA authorizes $12.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, which represents a much-needed increase from Obama administration funding levels.
While the funding levels set via the recently passed NDAA represent a substantial improvement, Congress will still need to appropriate all of the money it authorizes in the bill. Given the unique and growing threats from North Korea, the possibility of an increasingly powerful nuclear Iran and the nuclear capabilities of our more conventional adversary in Russia, Congress ought not to hesitate in appropriating these funds.
The NDAA allows for expanding existing capabilities and developing new capabilities. As of this year, the United States deploys 36 interceptors for its ground-based missile defense system, capable of intercepting an intercontinental ballistic missile in the midcourse phase of its flight, with four interceptors in California and 32 in Alaska. Experts have recommended 44 interceptors as a minimum number sufficient to protect the West Coast, Hawaii and Alaska.
The current GMD system is focused on defending the western parts of U.S. territory, but capabilities should be extended to provide missile defense testing and deployment options in the Midwest and East Coast.
The bill also recognizes the need to develop a robust, multi-layered missile defense system by authorizing development of space-based sensors and interceptors.
While denuclearization is a noble goal with respect to North Korea, it has proved an elusive one. In the meantime, vulnerable homeland assets should be protected by a robust missile defense program.