The Buzz

Could North Korea Hit the U.S. with a Nuclear Missile?

Given the rise in military tensions with North Korea, including nuclear testing and rhetoric from the regime, there is fast-mounting concern about North Korean technological progress in the area of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and long-range delivery systems.

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon is revving up its missile defense technology and taking North Korea’s nuclear threat very seriously – despite continued questions regarding the accuracy of the country’s claims about its nuclear arsenal and some of its weapons capabilities.

Known for its provocative rhetoric, weapons tests and claims of having long-range delivery systems and even a miniaturized a nuclear weapon, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has consistently threatened to use nuclear weapons against the US. Last year, he specifically said North Korea might launch a nuclear attack on the US in response to a US-South Korean military exercise.

Although this language is not necessarily taken seriously as North Korea has made a habit out of making these kind of statements, Kim Jong-un is thought to be both unpredictable and potentially unstable. As a result, U.S. planners are not taking any chances when it comes to stepping-up missile defense technology and preparedness.

Lt. Gen. David L. Mann, former U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command told reporters last year that he did not know if North Korea’s claim about having successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon is accurate, but did say their nuclear ambitions need to be taken seriously.

“They have a capability for long-range flight. I take their capability seriously. I think we need to take their development very seriously,” Mann said.

While many details about North Korea’s nuclear missile technology are likely not publically available, Mann may have likely been referring to the often-cited North Korea’s Taepodong 2 long-range missile. Various reports, such as one from the BBC, say this long-range weapon can hit ranges greater than 8,000 km – a distance which could put parts of the U.S. at risk from a North Korean attack.

Also, Mann may have been referring to another North Korean missile which has also been in the public eye. The North Korean KN-08 missile, mentioned last year by Commander of U.S. Northern Command Adm. William Gortney, can reach ranges greater than 3,400 miles, according to a recent report from the Associated Press.

Gortney said the KN-08 has "profound implications," especially if it is deployed as a road-mobile weapon, meaning it could be moved and launched from vehicles that make it less vulnerable to detection, the Associated Press report explained.  

At the same time, many analysts have said that it is not clear whether North Korea has the technology to accurately launch a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile able to successfully travel throughout all three phases of flight toward a target. An ICBM needs to travel through space carrying a warhead and then successfully re-enter the earth’s atmosphere before hitting its target.

Most of all, the unpredictability of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, coupled with the country’s unambiguous nuclear ambitions, have many Pentagon officials concerned about the technological pace of their progress.

Increasing Tensions: 

A US Navy Carrier Strike Group is now heading toward waters near North Korea shores as the regime continues ballistic missile tests while threatening a nuclear strike against the US.

On April 5, North Korea fired a ballistic missile off its east coast, following a March 6 firing of four ballistic missiles - three of them falling into Japan's exclusive economic zone.

The test firings and provocations by the North Korean regime have, not surprisingly, been accompanied by aggressive and threatening rhetoric from leader Kim Jong-un.

The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group, which includes destroyers, cruisers and a carrier air wing have changed course from a previously planned port visit to Australia and charted a northward course into the Western Pacific, Navy officials said.

"Adm. Harry Harris (Navy Pacific Commander) has directed the Carl Vinson strike Group to sail North and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean," a defense official told Scout Warrior.  

The move will not only demonstrate a show of US force but also bring substantial military assets and power-projection ability closer to North Korean shores; F-18 Super Hornet attack fighters can launch from a carrier deck and destroy land targets from hundreds of miles off the coast.

Also, Navy destroyers are equipped with Aegis radar missile defense technology able to track and destroy attacking ballistic missiles from the ocean; US Navy SM-3 interceptor missiles are designed to destroy enemy attacks traveling above the earth's atmosphere.

While Pentagon officials are clear to point out that potential future operations will not be discussed, there is acknowledgement that various contingency scenarios and possible action plans regarding the situation with North Korea - are under review.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently addressed the escalating circumstance with North Korea, saying the regime's actions were moving in a "very reckless manner."

In response to these developments, North Korean government officials reportedly gave a statement to CNN, saying "We will make the US fully accountable for the catastrophic consequences that may be brought about by its high-handed and outrageous acts."

Strengthening Missile Defense