3 moves needed to counter North Korea’s surging missile threat

This story originally was published by Real Clear Defense.

Failing on missile defenses for the homeland is not an option, and North Korea has again upped the Pentagon’s challenge.

Just over one month ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee finalized work on the annual defense authorization bill.  The Committee took the responsible course and is positioning the DoD to more effectively counter the North Korean missile threat.

Fortunately, successive Administrations have sought – and Congress has funded – necessary investment in key missile defense programs.   These investments have allowed the Department of Defense (DoD) to begin an overdue relook at what is critical to mitigating the North Korean missile threats.  The DoD is correct to be prioritizing efforts on a layered missile defense system to protect the U.S. homeland and stay ahead of the rogue ICBM threat.

The DoD is well down the path to expanding the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (the heart of our defense against North Korean missiles) from 44 to 64 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska and California. This larger number provides additional capacity for countering North Korea’s growing arsenal and increasingly sophisticated platforms.

Multiple administrations have also recognized that increased capacity alone is not enough – our military also needs enhanced capability as the threat evolves. More interceptors are critical, but so is vital investment in the capability of Next Generation Interceptors (NGI), which offer greater precision, reliability and readiness to counter North Korea’s more capable attack missiles than the earlier generation interceptors.  The Biden Administration has requested $20.4 billion in “missile defense and defeat” activities – which includes more than $900 million for NGI – in its Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget request in furtherance of this objective.

As is its history, effective missile defense is difficult and fraught with uncertainty and developmental shortcomings.  That is why Congress has wisely funded the development of multiple options for the nation’s Next Generation Interceptor.

Little noticed outside the world of missile defenses, the DoD’s Missile Defense Agency awarded contracts in March 2021 to multiple developers to carry out two designs through the technology development phase of the program.  Missile Defense Agency Vice Admiral Jon Hill is correct to be advocating for institutionalizing “fly before you buy” principles.  Fly before you buy enhances competition, drives-down long-term costs, promotes flexibility to meet evolving threats and priorities and ensures that the overall system and its components have been rigorously flight-tested prior to any procurement decision.  Congress should enshrine this concept for the Next Generation Interceptor Program.

But why the urgency and why focus on homeland defense against smaller states like North Korea?  North Korea is making rapid strides in testing and deploying more sophisticated means to hit the homeland with rockets and missiles potentially armed with nuclear weapons.

Despite our correct bipartisan decision to not recognize it as such, North Korea is, in fact, a nuclear weapon state.  The DPRK has conducted at least six known nuclear weapons tests since 2006, and activity across its nuclear materials production sites continues unabated.  Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines reinforced this to be North Korea’s course in her April 2021 Annual Threat Assessment presentation to Congress, noting, “North Korea will be a WMD threat for the foreseeable future, because [North Korean President] Kim remains strongly committed to the country’s nuclear weapons.”

North Korea is not just a nuclear weapons state but also one capable of credibly threatening the homeland with an increasingly diverse range of missiles and rockets, some of which can be armed with nuclear weapons.  North Korea is believed to have acquired a rudimentary intercontinental-range nuclear delivery capability in 2017, and this was a profound game changer for our homeland defense.

Being vulnerable to long-range nuclear blackmail from a small state that repeatedly provokes strategic threats significantly reduces our decision space in times of crisis.  The imbalance of power between the United States and North Korea in every other facet means Pyongyang can make peer-like demands in a range of circumstances.

North Korea displayed a new set of missiles in October 2020 and is working on missiles to release multiple warheads off one rocket.  North Korea appears to have passed another threshold when it successfully tested a new hypersonic missile it calls the Hwasong-8.  All these efforts pose an unacceptable risk to the homeland. The threat to the homeland by a small, unstable North Korea has existential potential, but fortunately, the plan to greatly reduce the threat is sound.  The way forward rests on three key actions:  (1) Congress’ continued willingness to fund the requirements for countering today’s threats; (2) the Missile Defense Agency’s willingness to maintain the missile interceptor competition through a two contractor fly-off so we can have the highest confidence in the nation’s supply of ground-based interceptors that are resilient, more capable, and adaptable to changing circumstance; and (3) calibrating acquisition to changes in the size, scale and scope of the threat landscape.

While some international actors are misreading U.S. intent to maintain its leadership in the world, some nations like North Korea are moving ahead at breakneck speed to mitigate our strengths.  Rolling back the long-range missile threat to the homeland from small states with limited arsenals is integral to our security and will remain so well into the future.  Smart defense investments in areas of prioritized and identified need are as valid today as ever.

About the author

Todd M. Rosenblum

Todd M. Rosenblum has served in a range of national security appointments and positions, including as Deputy Under Secretary of Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, Acting Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense at the Department of Defense, a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and as a negotiator with North Korea at the U.S. Department of State.

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