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.
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
With these threats as part of the equation, the Pentagon has sent the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, to South Korea as a way to better protect against North Korean missile threats. THAAD, already placed in Guam by the U.S. military, is a terminal phase interceptor missile designed to knock incoming ICBMs out of the sky as they approach their target.
“THAAD gives us a greater capability to address more challenging threats that are out there. It provides us with another layer above what the Patriot can provide,” Mann said.
The Pentagon is also substantially increasing its arsenal of Ground Based Interceptors, or GBIs, currently stationed at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Ft. Greeley, Ala. The plan, first announced by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel several years ago, aims to increase the number of GBIs to 44 by 2017. GBIs are interceptor missiles designed to shoot up into space and destroy approaching enemy ICBMs.
Mann praised the Army soldiers who work on GBI preparation, maintenance and operation at Ft. Greely, explaining how they endure difficult weather conditions to serve America better protect the U.S. homeland.
The Future of US Missile Defense - Multi-Object Kill Vehicle
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is in the early phases of engineering a next-generation “Star Wars”-type technology able to knock multiple incoming enemy targets out of space with a single interceptor, officials said.
The new system, called Multi-Object Kill Vehicle, or MOKV, is designed to release from a Ground Based Interceptor and destroy approaching Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs -- and also take out decoys traveling alongside the incoming missile threat.
“We will develop and test, by 2017, MOKV command and control strategies in both digital and hardware-in-the-Loop venues that will prove we can manage the engagements of many kill vehicles on many targets from a single interceptor. We will also invest in the communication architectures and guidance technology that support this game changing approach,” a Missile Defense Agency spokesman, told Scout Warrior last year.
Decoys or countermeasures are missile-like structures, objects or technologies designed to throw off or confuse the targeting and guidance systems of an approaching interceptor in order to increase the probability that the actual missile can travel through to its target.
If the seeker or guidance systems of a “kill vehicle” technology on a GBI cannot discern an actual nuclear-armed ICBM from a decoy – the dangerous missile is more likely to pass through and avoid being destroyed. MOKV is being developed to address this threat scenario.
The Missile Defense Agency has awarded MOKV development deals to Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon as part of a risk-reduction phase able to move the technology forward, MDA officials said.
Steve Nicholls, Director of Advanced Air & Missile Defense Systems for Raytheon, told Scout Warrior last year that the MOKV is being developed to provide the MDA with “a key capability for its Ballistic Missile Defense System. The idea is to discriminate lethal objects from countermeasures and debris. The kill vehicle, launched from the ground-based interceptor extends the ground-based discrimination capability with onboard sensors and processing to ensure the real threat is eliminated.”
MOKV could well be described as a new technological step in the ongoing maturation of what was originally conceived of in the Reagan era as “Star Wars” – the idea of using an interceptor missile to knock out or destroy an incoming enemy nuclear missile in space. This concept was originally greeted with skepticism and hesitation as something that was not technologically feasible.
Not only has this technology come to fruition in many respects, but the capability continues to evolve with systems like MOKV. MOKV, to begin formal product development by 2022, is being engineered with a host of innovations to include new sensors, signal processors, communications technologies and robotic manufacturing automation for high-rate tactical weapons systems, Nicholls explained.
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.