US defense officials are increasingly concerned that North Korea’s growing missile capabilities could overwhelm the combined defences on or near the Korean peninsula against such rocket attacks.
While the officials give US President Donald Trump credit for the speedy introduction this year of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea, they say such additions won’t be enough against a sustained attack by Pyongyang.
“If war came, we aren’t ready for an all-out North Korean missile attack – and never will be I am afraid – if we are relying on just missile defenses alone,” said a senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Estimates say North Korea has an arsenal of more than 1,000 missiles, which could be armed with nuclear, radioactive, chemical or biological weapons, and if a mass salvo was launched it’s unlikely every single one would be intercepted, the official said.
And just one missile getting through can mean failure, the official added.
This is one of the backdrops to comments by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Tokyo on Thursday, stating that 20 years of negotiations with North Korea to demilitarize haven’t worked and a new approach is needed.
Hitting a bullet
For a technology that is decades old, defending against missiles — essentially trying to hit a bullet with a bullet — is a daunting task for even the world’s most advanced militaries, including the US.
Washington has spent more than US$300 billion on various types of missile defense platforms.
These include the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or the space-based missile defense that was nicknamed “Star Wars.”
More recent efforts have focused on the Patriot missile system used during the First Gulf War, the AEGIS land and sea-based system, small national missile defenses located in Alaska, as well as the mobile THAAD platform.
And while Washington has been spending large amounts of time, money, resources, and political capital on missile defense, the truth is that many experts in the US defense community have their doubts about its effectiveness — especially when it comes to North Korea.
“We have spent so much money on missile defense, and yet, it will never be good enough as the burden is on the defender,” said a Pentagon official.
“It will never be the ‘missile shield’ so many folks want it to be. All US adversaries know that. They know having more missiles than interceptors is one pathway to potential success and decoys can also make the problem much worse.”
The official said too much emphasis is placed on missile defense solving what is a tough problem to crack – and it’s a problem that is only going to get worse as more nations get more sophisticated and develop longer range ballistic and cruise missiles.
“North Korea is just part one of a decades long challenge for us,” the official explained.
Recasting Missile Defense
A recent report in the New York Times pointed to efforts beyond standard missile defense platforms to using cyber warfare to confuse, sabotage or misdirect North Korean missiles.
While other reports have since cast doubt on the New York Times story because of the differing types of guidance systems, US defense officials agree it is a necessary effort.
Back in 2013 in an op-ed for Foreign Policy, US Admiral Jonathan Greenert and General Mark Welsh — focusing their argument on US efforts to negate China’s growing missile capabilities — discussed use of electronic warfare and other measures to break the so-called “kill-chain,” or the systems that drive missiles to their target.
“The point is this: we need to confuse, sabotage, or kill the ‘archer,’ or the missile shooter, before they can get that weapon in the air,” said one retired pentagon official.
Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former president Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.