The Buzz

The Ultimate Question: Could America Stop a Nuclear Attack from North Korea?

The trajectory of an enemy ICBM includes an initial “boost” phase where it launches from the surface up into space, a “midcourse” phase where it travels in space above the earth’s atmosphere and a “terminal” phase wherein it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and descends to its target. MOKV is engineered to destroy threats in the “midcourse” phase while the missile is traveling through space.

An ability to destroy decoys as well as actual ICBMs is increasingly vital in today’s fast-changing technological landscape because potential adversaries continue to develop more sophisticated missiles, countermeasures and decoy systems designed to make it much harder for interceptor missile to distinguish a decoy from an actual missile.

As a result, a single intercept able to destroy multiple targets massively increases the likelihood that the incoming ICBM threat will actually be destroyed more quickly without needing to fire another Ground Based Interceptor.  

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed members of Congress at the White House on the review President Donald J. Trump ordered of U.S. policy toward North Korea, Pentagon statements said.

After the briefing, Tillerson, Mattis and Coats released a joint statement:

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat and a top foreign policy priority, the statement said.

“Past efforts have failed to halt North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs and nuclear and ballistic missile tests,” the statement said. “With each provocation, North Korea jeopardizes stability in Northeast Asia and poses a growing threat to our allies and the U.S. homeland.”

The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the leaders said. “We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies,” they added.

North Korean Threat

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.