Are We Prepared for a North Korean Nuclear Attack?

Are We Prepared for a North Korean Nuclear Attack?

Pyongyang’s recent missile tests demonstrate that Washington must do more to modernize American missile defenses.

The Missile Defense Agency, responsible for overseeing the systems requirements and design review for the interceptors, has admirably promoted competition between two contracting teams to accelerate the delivery timeline, drive down costs, and limit technical risk. Meeting this performance metric will require testing the GBI frequently in demanding scenarios, independently and in combination with other elements to enhance performance. For some of these enablers, it might be prudent for the Agency to accept more risks with technology development programs, such as those intended to thwart emerging threats like hypersonic missiles. The planned upgrades to the existing network of sensors, command-and-control nodes, cyber defenses, and other critical support systems will also make the current GBI fleet more effective, pending the eventual deployment of the NGI. Extending the NGI competition through a prototype fly-off would further ensure the fielding of the most capable interceptor.

To construct a multi-layered defense architecture against the DPRK’s ICBM-class targets that protects Hawaii and Guam as well as the Continental United States, the Pentagon will need to integrate the NGIs with regional missile defenses. In the Indo-Pacific region, these include the Aegis-equipped Standard Missile interceptors deployed on ships along with the land-based Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems. Besides protecting U.S. deployed forces and allies, these regional missile defenses can provide important warning and tracking data of ICBMs launched from North Korea toward the United States. The potential effectiveness of such local systems has been evident in Ukraine, where even less advanced regional missile defenses have worked well in blunting the Russian missile onslaught. A comprehensive global defense architecture could also help protect the United States and its allies and forces from missiles launched by other countries. 

The long-term solution to the Korean crisis is internal regime change and reunification under a government that resembles present-day South Korea. Yet, no one knows how long this process could take given the ruthless effectiveness of the DPRK’s totalitarian regime. In the interim, having a robust spectrum of defense capabilities, suitable for a range of scenarios, is critical given the rapidly evolving threat environment.

Richard Weitz is the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.