WASHINGTON – The news of North Korea’s successful test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, ICBM), a missile that could theoretically hit the United States mainland is bad enough. But it gets much worse when combined with a just released assessment compiled by U.S. intelligence stating that North Korea may have also mastered the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead so that it can be fitted on the tip of its new ICBMs. Taken together, all this means that North Korea could soon have the capability to launch a nuclear armed intercontinental missile that could reach Seattle, Minneapolis, even Chicago or New York City. A very unpleasant prospect, given the paranoid leanings of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.
But it gets worse. These unexpected developments from North Korea reminded all Washington policy-makers that America does not have real defenses against missile attacks. Yes, you got it right. America lacks meaningful defensive systems capable of neutralizing even a small scale missile attack originating from a third rate rogue state like North Korea. In simple language: we cannot be assured that we can shoot down and incoming missile before it hits America.
Yes, believe it or not, America has essentially no missile defenses. To be precise, America has some systems. But they are rudimentary and probably not accurate.
Regarding a possible nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, (later on Russia) or China, Washington relied and relies on its massive nuclear deterrent, that is on the power of dissuasion embedded in a guaranteed retaliatory strike against an attacker. Which is to say that deterrence –a credible threat of massive retaliation against an attacker– is in essence our only protection.
The conventional wisdom has been and still is that no “rational” foreign leadership would consider attacking the United States with nuclear weapons, knowing that the U.S., even if mostly destroyed, would still retain a lethal retaliatory force consisting of many nuclear missiles carried by its fleet of submarines. No “rational actor” would attack America knowing in advance that America, even if mortally wounded, would retain the capability to inflict intolerable damage on the attacker.
That said, deterrence applies only to “rational actors”. However, when North Korea and soon enough Iran will have nuclear weapons and ICBMs to deliver them on target, we enter a completely new dimension. A dimension we are currently not prepared for. These are not “rational actors”. Therefore deterrence may not apply to them.
The Strategic Defense Initiative
So, what do we do? Well, a few years ago the U.S. Government articulated a revolutionary “Grand Plan” aimed at neutralizing not just some, but all nuclear weapons. Way back in the 1980s, then President Ronald Reagan was sold on the idea that we could render all nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” by developing a variety of anti-missile systems which could hit incoming ICBMs before their warheads could reach their targets on U.S. territory.
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, (SDI) –the Pentagon program created with the objective of developing the necessary anti-ballistic missiles technologies and weapons systems– was launched with much fanfare and a great deal of hype.
President Reagan promised that U.S. technological prowess soon enough would allow America to deploy layers of fully functioning systems able to protect America from any nuclear attack by hitting missiles and warheads before they could reach their targets on U.S. soil. These systems would render all nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete”. No point in developing nuclear weapons if they could be destroyed before they could be detonated.
It did not work
But SDI did not work out as advertised. The technological challenges were and still are immense. The task of hitting literally thousands of small targets traveling at fantastic speed, with absolute accuracy, seemed too daunting. After Reagan left the political scene in January 1989, Washington’s focus shifted elsewhere.
Nonetheless America kept investing, albeit only modestly, in new anti-ballistic missiles technologies that could deliver effective systems down the line. Following this trend, at the beginning of his new administration, (January 2001), President George W. Bush made ballistic defense one of his national security priorities.
Renewed efforts in the new millennium
With the objective of pursuing more modern systems, the Bush administration in 2002 decided to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that the U.S. had signed with the Soviet Union in 1972, (and still enforced by the Russian Federation). By withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, an agreement which limited the numbers and types of anti-ballistic missiles that both the USSR and the US could deploy, Washington gained the latitude to test and eventually deploy new systems in line with the goals set forth by the National Missile Defense Act.
Unfortunately, 9/11 and its aftermath dramatically changed American national security priorities. Because of the two long and costly wars, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, the Bush administration did not devote meaningful resources to its anti-ballistic missiles programs.
The Obama administration which followed 8 years of Bush in January 2009 certainly did not recognize the urgency of this defensive program. It funded some work on anti-ballistic missile systems, but only very modestly in the ensuing 8 years.
As a result today, as we face an increasingly real North Korean nuclear threat, we have almost nothing in place to defend America against incoming nuclear armed missiles. As indicated above, we have some systems. But they are small in terms of the number of deployed interceptors, and not necessarily accurate. Therefore they are unreliable.
No military or diplomatic solution
As many have already concluded, there are no good options when it comes to eliminating the North Korean nuclear threat through military means. Attacking North Korea’s missile sites and other facilities connected with its nuclear programs, while possible, most likely would trigger a general conflagration in the Korean peninsula, with the almost inevitable direct involvement of South Korea, China, and possibly Japan.
Non military solutions do not exist. Diplomacy will not convince Kim Jong-un to scrap its nuclear program, simply because this is the only asset he has that gives him international standing. Without nuclear weapons North Korea is just a grotesque aberration: an impoverished police state run by a crazy despot.
The recent new round of UN sanctions imposed against North Korea, should not create false hopes. The Security Council unanimous vote has been applauded because it may lead us to believe that China is finally coming to our side. But it is not so.
China will not help
As long as China keeps the North Korean economy and state above water –and there is no sign that Beijing will cut all economic ties with its old ally– North Korea will continue to have the financial and technical means to continue its nuclear weapons programs. Therefore, do not count on more UN sanctions as the tool that will make this emerging nuclear threat against America and its allies go away.
Redouble our efforts
All in all, even recognizing that Washington wasted at least 10 years doing almost nothing when it comes to creating defensive systems against nuclear armed ballistic missiles, now is the time to redouble our efforts and invest in state of the art interceptors and other devices that some day will neutralize the threat posed by rogue nuclear states.