Can Our Ballistic Missile Defense System Shield Us from Rogue Regime ICBMs?

by Jerry Gordon (March 2016)

North Korean Unha-3 Satellite Space Vehicle Launch, February 7, 2016

February 2016 brought several concerning ICBM threats from both North Korea and Iran amid official government reports that the US and NATO allies lack an effective Ballistic Missile Defense. On February 7, 2016, North Korea successfully placed in a polar orbit a 200kg. satellite using an Unha-3 space vehicle launcher (SLV). That sent alarm bells ringing as a game changer. Ten days later, Iran announced a prospective launch of its version of a satellite launcher, the Smorgh, capable of putting an object into a near earth orbit. This massive multi-stage liquid fuel rocket was built using North Korean technology and clearly aimed at demonstrating ICBM capabilities. Iran had consistently violated UN Resolution 2231 with the launch of Emad ballistic missiles in October and November 2015 violating sanctions against ballistic missile testing.

The  US General Accounting Office released a report on February 17th critical of the development and test of a ground-based mid-course interceptor (GMD) that has yet to demonstrate its capability to target and destroy ICBMs. The 16th joint US Israeli missile defense drill concluded  on February 24th with 1,700 US and 1,500 Israeli military personnel involved, conducting simulations of an umbrella of six US, Israeli and jointly-developed missile defense systems. Simulations of the interoperability of these systems are one thing. Perfecting them to the point of demonstrating the ability of destroying missiles threatening Israeli, our allies in NATO and the US homeland is quite another. Risky development of components of the missile defense umbrella with multiple defense contractors has seriously delayed tests and ultimate deployment of mid-course ground based interceptors. Only one successful interception test has occurred in the past eight years.

Meanwhile, rogue regimes North Korea and Iran are intent on the development and testing of long-range missile technology in direct violation of UN Resolutions. Sanctions or the threat of sanctions have not deterred them. Both North Korea and Iran have successfully placed satellites in orbit. The question is, what they have done cooperatively to test nuclear warheads to be fitted on long range rockets capable of hitting the US homeland? The bedrock issue is, can our ballistic missile defense shield us from these rogue regimes?

The North Korean Space Launch Game Changer

North Korea launched a long-range rocket on February 7, 2016 carrying what it called an observational satellite. The Pentagon confirmed that the North Koreans successfully launched a satellite. Launched in a southerly direction, the 200 kg. satellite is in polar orbit. That means it passes over the US every 95 minutes, perhaps providing imagery and GPS coordinates to Pyongyang for possible later use. Reuters noted in a report:

U.S. Pacific Command said it had Aegis ballistic missile defense systems, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and the Sea-Based X-Band Radar in the region, which would work with Japanese and South Korean militaries.

North Korea’s regional neighbors and Washington denounced the satellite launch as a violation of previous accords conducted in defiance of U.N. sanctions and just weeks after a nuclear bomb test on January 6, 2016. But was the test a game changer in terms of missile technology and development of a possible nuclear warhead capability or merely the lofting into orbit of a satellite for observational, communications or other purposes? The answers, as usual, may be murky as regards what the hermit state is up to in such dramatic demonstrations. Is it to buy bargaining leverage in negotiations with both South Korea and the Obama Administration, or is it something more concerning, perfecting an ICBM reaching US territory?

Reuters reported the aftermath of the Unha-3 satellite launch, “N.Korean rocket puts object into space, angers neighbors & U.S:”

The U.S. Strategic Command said it had detected a missile entering space and South Korea’s military said the rocket had put an object into orbit, quashing earlier media reports indicating the rocket might have failed in flight.

“Everything we have seen is consistent with a successful repeat of the 2012 (launch),” said U.S. missile technology expert John Schilling of 38 North of Johns Hopkins University , referring to a previous launch of what the North said was a communications satellite.

North Korea, which [in January 2016] exploded a nuclear device, had  notified U.N. agencies that it launched a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite, triggering opposition from governments that see it as a long-range missile test.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on February 7th in Manhattan  to discuss the launch, at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea, diplomats said.

The United States while tracking the rocket launch said it did not believe that it posed a threat to the United States or its allies.

The United States was working with the U.N. Security Council on “significant measures” to hold North Korea to account for its launch.  

Calling the launch a flagrant violation of U.N. resolutions on the country’s use of ballistic missile technology, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry  reaffirmed the “ironclad” U.S. defense commitments to allies Japan and South Korea and called the launch a destabilizing and unacceptable challenge to peace and security.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch an unforgivable act of provocation.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch “absolutely unacceptable”, especially after North Korea had tested a nuclear device last month.

“To launch a missile after conducting a nuclear test goes against the U.N. resolution. We will respond resolutely, coordinating closely with the international community,” he told reporters.

The AP reported the implications and consequences of the latest North Korean satellite launched by the multi-stage Unha-3 or space launch vehicle (SLV):

Critics say North [Korea] still has some technical barriers to surmount to achieve reliable nuclear weapons that can attack faraway targets. Among the important tasks facing North Korean scientists are thought to be building up a larger rocket that can fly farther and carry a heavier satellite or payload. This would be necessary if the North is going to develop a missile that can reach the entire U.S. mainland and be loaded with a warhead, which is several times heavier than the satellite the country launched in 2012.

Outside analysts say the successful flight of a rocket loaded with a satellite weighing about 1 ton (2,200 pounds) would mean the North [Korea] likely could develop a nuclear-armed long-range missile.

The AP report concluded:

Critics are skeptical over whether any new sanctions can stop North Korea from abandoning its nuclear and rocket programs because China, North [Korea]’s last major ally and biggest aid benefactor and a veto-wielding power in the U.N. Security Council, is unwilling to cooperate on any harsh punishment on  North Korea.

Beijing fears too much pressure on North  Korea could cause it to collapse, pushing swarms of refugees over the countries’ border and establishing a unified Korea that hosts American troops on its doorstep.

The launch gives Kim, the North Korea’s young leader, a chance to burnish his image domestically ahead of a landmark ruling Workers’ Party convention in May.

Because  North Korea claims the launch as a success, it may think it has increased leverage in diplomatic negotiations and eventually proposed talks with the United States and South Korea to try to win concessions, said professor Koh Yu-hwan at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

One of those skeptics is Gordon Chang. Chang in a Fox News interview said the North Korean satellite launch is something to worry about. Chang is a veteran North Korea and China analyst, Forbes columnist and author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He said the hermit state “demonstrated the mastery of missile technology.” Chang further commented that the North Koreans demonstrated they have the means to successfully develop a true ICBM; an ICBM, that both North Korea and its ready customer Iran might use to attack both coasts of this country. Chang’s comments and the reaction from the Obama White House suggest maybe it is. US UN Ambassador Samantha Power, called it a missile launch because the SLV and a true ICBM shared the same technology. That meant in the Administration’s view the successful satellite launch violated UN sanctions against missile testing. However, given the track record of the UN Security Council it appears incapable of doing anything about this latest North Korean action.

Chang holds that sanctions don’t work with North Korea. Instead he suggested that we might control the aid to North Korea endeavoring to separate the people from the autocratic ruling Kim family. He also suggested that South Korea move 143 companies out of the Kaesong industrial park shared with North Korea that has been a veritable money machine for the hermit state. Subsequently, South  Korea repatriated several hundred workers, cutoff power and closed the cross border industrial complex. Further, Chang noted that after the January 6, 2016 nuclear test, no further sanctions were proposed by the UN because China would effectively block them. China, he pointed out, does a fair amount of banking with North Korea.

There are several significant aspects of this latest North Korean satellite launch.  

First, according to NK the space vehicle launcher uses a liquid fuel booster stage which is vulnerable during launch. Further, it argues solid fuel ICBMs reduce the launch vulnerability exposure as they require minimal time for launch. Note this comment from John Schilling of the Johns Hopkins’ US-Korea Institute 38N project in Washington, DC: “North Korea would find it difficult to build an operational ICBM founded on the Unha-3 technology.” He concluded that “the Unha-3, by comparison (to the KN-08 missile], looks like it was designed to launch satellites rather than warheads.”

Second, this was the second successful launch of a multi-stage vehicle; i.e., first stage liquid fuel booster and second and third solid fuel stages. That means that the North Korean have demonstrated the capability of potentially developing an ICBM and the domestic means of making solid propellant.

Third, couple this satellite launch with the January 6, 2016 nuclear test that some experts consider a boosted fission warhead, as former Reagan era defense official Dr. Stephen Bryen inferred in our NER January 2016 article.

Fourth, the trajectory of launch was in a southward direction, meaning a polar orbit, makes it problematic for the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) as we have limited over the horizon radar detection capabilities and may lack anti-missile installations on Gulf of Mexico approaches. Some experts like Ambassador Hank Cooper, former Reagan era SDI development chief, and Dr. Peter Pry of the Congressional EMP Commission, believe that ultimately if North Korea could develop a low yield warhead it might be capable of detonating and causing an Electronic Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. Cooper and ex-CIA Director Ambassador R. James Woolsey, also contend that if North Korea had a Fractal Orbiting Bomb System or FOBS, with a nuke in a satellite that might be used to trigger an EMP. Other experts believe that North Korea doesn’t presently have that technology, but is conducting both nuclear and missile tests to acquire data for further development and simulations.

Nonetheless, Cooper is urging the MDA to position Aegis BMD shore-based batteries in strategic locations on the US Gulf of Mexico Coast to deter a possible FOBS threat. He reiterated those concerns in a February 2, 2016 High Frontier alert concerning this current North Korean satellite launch.  

So why is North Korea continuing to scare its neighbors South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US, by violating both nuclear development and missile testing UN sanctions? The answer, according to Dr. Bryen may be that it wants to have prestige and negotiating leverage from having achieved successful satellite launches, nuclear weapons testing and possible missile technologies breakthroughs. More likely he says North Korea is in the arms business and wants to sell the data and technology to their customers. A prominent customer he suggests may be Iran. North Korea has allegedly sold solid fuel missiles, notably mobile BM25′s to Iran for placement in underground silos. The BM25 Musudan has a range of 3,500 kilometers (approximately 2,180 miles) capable of covering targets in Europe. Iran is also interested in North Korean large booster rocket development.

But more is to come. Admiral Bill Gortney, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command at an April 7, 2015 Pentagon News Conference stated:

Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland [the continental United States].” He expressed confidence that the U.S. could knock down such a missile if launched by North Korea or its ally, Iran.

The KN-08 is a road-capable, highly mobile ICBM, which can be hidden anywhere throughout  North Korea and could be fired on a short-countdown virtually undetectable by American intelligence.

He also admitted, however, that it is “very difficult” for the U.S. to counter the threat, because it is unable to follow the mobile ICBMs and give an efficient warning before they are launched.

NK Nuke ICBM Projected Scenarios Korea-US Institute JHU April 2015.jpg
The US-Korea Institute of the John Hopkins SAIS Projections of North Korea ICBM Threat

At approximately the same time as Admiral Gortney’s Pentagon briefing, the Johns Hopkins University Korea–US Institute released a definitive study on the Nuclear tipped North Korean Missile Threat. Among its findings were:

North Korea’s current delivery systems consist of about 1,000 ballistic missiles and a small number of light bombers able to reach most targets in South Korea and Japan. This force is comparatively more advanced than most countries at a similar early stage in the development of their nuclear arsenals since ballistic missiles have played an important role in Pyongyang’s conventional military strategy for many years. As a result, the current force is more than able to accommodate any future growth in the North’s nuclear weapons arsenal, including a worst-case projection of 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.

While disquieting as this latest North Korean satellite test is, the reality is the US Ballistic Missile Shield now has to confront the hermit state which may have the capability to build, deploy and launch ICBMs like the mobile KN-08 able to reach the US. At issue is how long it will take North Korea to perfect nuclear warhead technology to fit their ICBMs to sell to rogue customers like Iran.

GMD flght test Vandenberg AFB 1-28-16 Gene Belvins LA Daily News.jpg
Ground-based Missile Defense Interceptor Launch
Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, January 28, 2016
Source: Los Angeles Daily News

How reliable is the US Ballistic Missile Shield?

Two LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs were successfully launched in February 2016 toward the Kwajalien test site in the Pacific, over 5,000 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. These test launches may have been triggered by the North Korean satellite launch on February 7th. The USAF has 450 nuclear tipped Minuteman ICBMs in underground silos in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. These scheduled launches of Minuteman III ICBMs do not have explosive warheads. While a demonstration of US strategic power projection, of greater interest was the launch of a ground-based mid course ballistic missile interceptor (GMD) from a silo at Vandenberg in late January 2016. A Santa Barbara News report noted:

“The test involved another extremely valuable opportunity to make the entire system more reliable with focus on new engineering solutions to further enhance the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV),” said Riki Ellison, director of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

Missile-defense experts believe a target missile from a rogue nation, such as Iran or North Korea, would include the warheads along with countermeasures and decoys in an effort to stump the missile-defense system’s ability to intercept an attack.

A GAO report released on February 17, 2016 found that we have not successfully tested the technology to take down incoming ballistic missiles, Assessment of DOD’s Reports on Status of Efforts and Options for Improving Homeland Missile Defense. Moreover, the report questioned the high risk strategy to develop a revised EKV to detect and destroy possible ICBMs. Further, the government’s report questioned the reliability of the existing 26 interceptors based in Alaska, and four GMD interceptors based at Vandenberg facing a possible North Korean missile threat. Military Times reported the author of the GAO report saying risks in the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) strategy were “overlapping of development and test of the revised GMD.”  Defense News noted the deficiencies of the current GMD program:

GAO states, for example, MDA has demonstrated “some” capability to defend against ballistic missile threats, “but several other key aspects necessary to prove it can defend the US homeland against the current ballistic missile threat have not been demonstrated.”

Some of the capabilities that still need to be demonstrated are intercepting a target representative of an intercontinental ballistic missile and performing a salvo intercept where two or more interceptors are used against a single target.

Vice Adm. James Syring, MDA’s director, told reporters … the next intercept test for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system’s interceptors would be in November 2016 against an ICBM representative threat.

MDA’s key improvement plans include beefing up the amount of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) within the GMD system from 30 to 44.

By the end of fiscal 2017 all 44 GBIs will be in place at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

What is the US Ballistic Missile Defense Shield?

BMDS diagram.png
Figure 1

Let’s examine the components in the Ballistic Missile Defense umbrella. Figure 1 illustrates what the US currently has available to contend with missile threats across a wide spectrum from short range to intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Aegis Systems. You will note that there are several variants of the ship-based Aegis systems capable of addressing short through intermediate range missile threats; i.e., from 1,000 to 5,500 miles. As illustrated in Figure 2 below, the US has positioned ship-based Aegis systems in the Adriatic, Black Seas, Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Aegis systems may be capable of attacking medium range ballistic missiles, such the North Korean BM25’s, that Iran possesses with a range of 3,500 kilometers. Only the Aegis SM3 interceptors and Block IIB systems are capable of addressing intermediate range ballistic missiles. The Administration substituted the ship-based Aegis systems for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Systems (THAAD) that was originally to be installed in Czechoslovakia and Poland to contend with Russian and Iranian missile threats. However, because of objections from Moscow, the original missile defense plans were redrawn. The first successful inception by a shore-based Aegis BMD with SM-3 interceptor occurred in Hawaii in December 2015. The first on-shore Aegis BMD  installation in Romania was completed just before New Year’s 2016. The second shore-based Aegis BMD installation in Poland is scheduled for completion in 2018.

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Systems (THAAD) is a US Army developed  transportable rapid deployment system capable of intercepting and destroying short, medium and intermediate range missiles in the final or terminal flight phase whether inside or outside the atmosphere. THAAD’s reliability is reflected in 13 successful tests, including 11 intercepts.  To date five THAAD batteries have been deployed. The US has offered to supply South Korea with a THAAD battery following the North Korean satellite test.

Patriot (advanced capacity PAC-3) is a Lockheed Martin developed air defense system for the US Army and deployed in 10 countries, including several NATO members. Deployed in the first Gulf War in 1991, it has been refined and upgraded with improved interceptors to address fighters, short range ballistic and long range cruise missiles threats. More than 2,000 units have been produced. The Japanese Defense Force was prepared to launch PAC-3 interceptors if the North Korean satellite launch had failed before it could fall on the home islands.

Ground based Midcourse System (GMD) is the only system capable of addressing North Korean or Iranian ICBM threats, such as the KN-08. It has yet to be developed, let alone successfully tested as a revised EKV. Moreover, even if the late 2016 test can demonstrate the ability to detect and destroy ICBMs in mid course, those interceptors may not replace the less reliable versions in Alaska scheduled for additional installations in 2017. More effective GMD interceptors might not be available to addressing the North Korean or Iranian ICBM threats that may enter service by 2020.

Aegis Umbrella diagram.png
Figure 2

In a prior NER April 2015 assessment of North Korean and Iranian ICBM capabilities, we noted the conclusions of the JHU US-Korea Institute study:

· Improve U.S. homeland ballistic missile defense. The U.S. should accelerate deployment of additional ground-based midcourse defense interceptors in Alaska and California to prevent an emerging gap between North Korean ballistic missile capabilities and U.S. defenses.

· Accelerate development of advanced versions of the SM-3 interceptor for Aegis-capable ships, including restarting the SM-3 Block IIB program, which would give the Aegis system the ability to intercept long-range ballistic missiles.

· Restart the boost-phase ballistic missile defense programs. During the boost phase, a missile is at its slowest, has not yet deployed decoys, and is therefore most vulnerable and easily intercepted. The Obama Administration cancelled all such programs in its first term, including the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor.

· Restart the multiple kill vehicle program for ground-based interceptors to increase the probability of interception by only one interceptor, rather than requiring the launch of multiple interceptors.

· Improve and modernize U.S. space-based sensors, including the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. This is a critical capability for detecting missile launches and tracking their trajectory.


The irony is that a preemptive attack proposal against North Korean missiles originated a decade ago in 2006 in a Time Magazine article co-authored by then Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, now Pentagon Chief, and former Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry. Four nuclear and several space launches and missile tests later, we have an Administration whose response is to hold sanctions talks at the UN which North Korea continually violates.

Meanwhile the February 7, 2016, North Korean satellite launch coupled with the January 6, 2016 nuclear test exposes the vulnerability of the US to possible missile attack by rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran. The lack of a reliable Ballistic Missile Defense highlighted by the recent GAO study now vaults the issue to the top of national security issues.



Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.


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