A THAAD interceptor is test-launched in Kodiak, Alaska, on July 11, 2017. Photo: Leah Garton / Missile Defense Agency / Handout via Reuters
A THAAD interceptor is test-launched in Kodiak, Alaska, on July 11, 2017. Photo: Leah Garton / Missile Defense Agency / Handout

One does not want to appear blasé about the growing North Korean missile-and-nuke threat, but it is hardly anything new. Pyongyang detonated its first nuclear weapon more than a decade ago. It first demonstrated its growing prowess in missile development with the 1998 test of the Taepodong-1, a multi-stage intermediate-range missile that.

Since then, North Korea has only further refined and advanced its weapons of mass destruction. Today, it is the WMD state that most worries the world.

Obviously, North Korea is a nuclear-armed state, whether we like it or not. But before the United States and, in particular, its president engage in destabilizing, escalatory rhetoric (“fire and fury”) and actions, let’s all take a moment and consider options short of war. In particular, let us consider missile defenses.

What about missile defense?

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, missile defense was part of the great divide in US politics. More than that, it was a political touchstone. Republicans were against abortion, wanted to reduce taxes and big government – and were in favor of missile defense. Democrats, for the most part, were against missile defenses: they were costly, untested, and destabilizing to the global nuclear balance of terror, and would probably never offer the kind of universal catch-all protection that Ronald Reagan envisaged.

By the early 2000s, however, Republicans and Democrats had moved to the middle ground on missile defense. Republicans came around to accepting (tacitly, if not openly) the idea that Reagan’s “astrodome” defense was probably untenable. It was impossible to protect the United States from a massive nuclear strike. At the same time, systems such as airborne lasers and space-based missile defenses were impractical and hideously expensive.

For their part, Democrats under president Bill Clinton came to see that a limited missile defense system could have real-world benefits. In particular, they could protect troops from the kinds of battlefield missile systems that were rapidly proliferating at the time.

More important, both sides began to coalesce around the idea of a limited missile defense to guard mostly against rogue nuclear states and the like. Defenses against Russian and Chinese nuclear forces were for the most part abandoned. Large nuclear adversaries could almost certainly overwhelm most practical missile defenses through greater numbers and decoys. Mutual assured destruction between the great powers, therefore, remained in place.

Against much smaller nuclear adversaries, however, missile defenses made increasing sense. They were the most likely nuclear threat, and devising workable systems to guard against such threats were at least conceivable. And in such cases, North Korea (and to a lesser extent, Iran) were ready-made “poster boys” for limited missile defenses.

A layered missile defense, 20 years in the making

As a result, the United States, in cooperation with Japan and South Korea, has spent the past 20 years crafting a layered defense against North Korean missiles. US and Japanese destroyers cruise the Sea of Japan armed with missiles (in this case, the Standard SM-3) to shoot down North Korean missiles. Similarly, the South Koreans have agreed to host US Army units equipped with batteries of THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) interceptors.

Finally, the US military has deployed at least 40 so-called Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) anti-ballistic missiles in the continental United States. The GMD is a silo-launched missile intended to shoot down any incoming missiles that get past sea-based SM-3s or THAAD. So far, all GMD missiles are based in the western United States (Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California), reflecting their priority in guarding against a North Korean missile attack.

Give missile defense a chance?

Consequently, nearly everyone across the US political spectrum is on board for missile defense, and nearly everyone accepts its military usefulness and applicability. The United States has spent tens of billions of dollars on missile defenses, specifically for the kind of threat that North Korea is now posing. So, during the current North Korean WMD crisis, why isn’t everyone feeling safer, knowing that the US has a working missile-defense system in place? After all, isn’t that why they were developed in the first place?

In fact, missile defense has been almost entirely lost in all the hyperbole and posturing. And the current North Korean crisis poignantly illustrates the great fraud that has been perpetrated on the US people – indeed, the entire world – when it comes to missile defenses: They do not make us feel any more safe and secure. They do not even seem to add an extra layer of well-being, even though they do offer an additional layer of protection.

Ultimately, strategic military systems like nuclear weapons or missile defenses never offer the wholesale security and reassurance they promise. They eventually become just one more tool in the toolbox, which also includes diplomacy and other non-military implements.

The North Korean WMD crisis will be solved by more than military means. “Fire and fury” get us nowhere.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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