Editorial Board

How to Blow North Korean Missiles Out of the Sky

Right now there's no guarantee that the U.S. could defend against a nuclear attack on the West Coast.

What are the odds?

Photograph: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

If North Korea fired a nuclear-tipped missile at San Francisco, would U.S. missile defenses blast it out of the sky? Most Americans seem to think it's a sure thing. Sadly, they're mistaken. With the world's nuclear club growing and peer threats on the rise, the U.S. needs to step up both its missile-defense research and efforts to reach new nonproliferation agreements.   

The main missile-defense system for the West Coast, known Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, consists of 44 "kill vehicles" in California and Alaska connected to a ground- and space-based detection network. A descendant of the much-maligned "Star Wars" initiative of the 1980s, it is designed to detonate an incoming missile, traveling at more than 15,000 miles per hour, while it is in space or on its downward trajectory toward earth. This is the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, half of the Pentagon's 18 tests since 1999 have failed -- including three of the five since 2010. And these tests, which cost $244 million each, are conducted in controlled conditions: The crews know more or less when and where the threat will be coming from.

GMD isn't the Pentagon's only defense against a nuclear attack. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, now deployed in South Korea and Guam, and the Navy's shipborne Aegis system, are also capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, albeit not those with the intercontinental range that North Korea has recently demonstrated.

Then again, Kim Jong Un's is not the only regime posing a nuclear threat. A system using Aegis technology and operated by NATO exists in Romania to counter a potential Iranian attack. Russia is militarily resurgent, and China is looking to become the world's dominant power.

In this context, these defenses against small attacks become less relevant. Russia could conceivably launch more than 1,000 warheads from its nearly 500 launchers, along with decoy missiles to confuse U.S. detection systems. Both Russia and China are thought to be ahead of the U.S. on research into hypersonic cruise missiles that may be capable of traveling at Mach 6.

So, how can the U.S. deal with the nuclear threats of tomorrow? The most viable strategy at the moment involves strengthening existing nonproliferation agreements with Russia -- the New Start agreement of 2010 is set to expire in three years -- and reaching new deals with China, India, Pakistan and other members of the nuclear club to reduce the size of their arsenals. The U.S., with the strongest conventional military in the world, would be the biggest beneficiary of any such reductions.

That said, "peace through strength" remains a truism on a nuclearized planet. The Pentagon is expected to get a $30 billion boost from the White House budget released last week, its largest windfall since the early 2000s. More research into GMD and new technologies such as space-based lasers would be a worthwhile investment. A massive nuclear strike of the kind envisioned during the Cold War remains unlikely. But a missile-defense system designed to counter one may have new relevance as a defense against a smaller-scale attack. "Star Wars" is no longer a laughing matter.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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