The Buzz

This Missile-Killer System Is North Korea's Worst Nightmare

A potentially cheaper option, which would be available much more quickly, is to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for boost-phase defense. As I noted back in June, the Missile Defense Agency recently published a request for information (RFI) asking for proposals for a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft equipped with lasers to destroy ballistic missiles during their boost phase. Although lasers hold great promise for missile defense in the future, a more near-term option would be to equip UAVs with kinetic intercepts. The technology for such a system is basically already available. In his article mentioned above, Lacinski points to a recent MIT simulation that demonstrated the feasibility of using the MQ-9 Reaper drone as a boost-phase intercept (BPI). In the simulation, the drone relied on the infrared Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS-C) sensor to track the missile. As he noted, the MDA has already tested an integrated MQ-9 Reaper and MTS-C to track missiles from boost phase to mid-course. During the simulation, two UAVs with MTS-C tracked the missile while a third equipped with interceptors destroyed it. The MIT analysis found this system was effective for ICBMs and Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs), but less so against medium-range ballistic missiles that have shorter burnup times.

Although this system holds promise from a technical standpoint, it could pose significant political problems. Most importantly, a system deployed close enough to be effective against North Korea would inevitably also be useful against some of China and perhaps Russia’s missiles. The United States would therefore face fierce backlash against Beijing if it fielded such a system. Then again, this would be another way for the Trump administration to turn up the pressure on China, which seems to be the current strategy. Thus, China’s opposition could be a selling point for the White House.

Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is the Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Image: A North Korean long-range rocket is launched into the air at the Sohae rocket launch site, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 7, 2016. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo/File Photo