Downing North Korean Missiles Is Hard. So the U.S. Is Experimenting.

November 17, 2017



Buried in an emergency funding request to
Congress lie hints of new ways to confront
Pyongyang, like cyberweapons and armed drones.


WASHINGTON — Concerned that the missile defense system designed to protect American cities is insufficient by itself to deter a North Korean attack, the Trump administration is expanding its strategy to also try to stop Pyongyang’s missiles before they get far from Korean airspace.

The new approach, hinted at in an emergency request to Congress last week for $4 billion to deal with North Korea, envisions the stepped-up use of cyberweapons to interfere with the North’s control systems before missiles are launched, as well as drones and fighter jets to shoot them down moments after liftoff. The missile defense network on the West Coast would be expanded for use if everything else fails.

In interviews, defense officials, along with top scientists and senior members of Congress, described the accelerated effort as a response to the unexpected progress that North Korea has made in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to the continental United States.

“It is an all-out effort,” said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who returned from a lengthy visit to South Korea last month convinced that the United States needed to do far more to counter North Korea. “There is a fast-emerging threat, a diminishing window, and a recognition that we can’t be reliant on one solution.”

For years, that single solution has been the missile batteries in Alaska and California that would target any long-range warheads fired toward the American mainland, trying to shoot them down as they re-enter the atmosphere. Such an approach, known as “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” remains of dubious effectiveness, even after more than $100 billion has been spent on the effort. Antimissile batteries on ships off the Korean coast and in South Korea protect against medium-range missiles, but not those aimed at American cities.

Three Layers  of Defense Against North Korean Missiles

Washington is responding to the North Korean nuclear threat with a rush of money to strengthen old antimissile systems and inaugurate new ones. The diagram shows a mix of current and proposed options for defeating the North’s long-range missiles.



So the administration plans to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the two other approaches, both of which are still in the experimental stage. The first involves stepped-up cyberattacks and other sabotage that would interfere with missile launches before they occur — what the Pentagon calls “left of launch.” The second is a new approach to blowing up the missiles in the “boost phase,” when they are slow-moving, highly visible targets.

President Trump has praised the existing missile defense system, insisting last month that it “can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time,” a claim that arms control experts call patently false. In trial runs, conducted under ideal conditions, the interceptors in Alaska and California have failed half of the time. And the Pentagon has warned administration officials that the North will soon have enough long-range missiles to launch volleys of them, including decoys, making the problem far more complex.

That helps explain the rush for new protections.

“They’re looking at everything,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who recently led two antimissile studies and closely monitors the administration’s planning. “What you’re seeing is a lot more options on the table.”

The $4 billion emergency budget sought by the White House is on top of the $8 billion that the Missile Defense Agency has already been granted for this fiscal year, as well as what other military services and agencies are putting into missile defense. Another $440 million was moved from existing programs to antimissile work two months ago, as the North Korea threat became more serious.

In the emergency request to Congress, and in documents made public by its committees, the precise use of the funds is cloaked in deliberately vague language.

Hundreds of millions of dollars, for example, are allotted for what the documents called “disruption/defeat” efforts. Several officials confirmed that the “disruption” efforts include another, more sophisticated attempt at the kind of cyber and electronic strikes that President Barack Obama ordered in 2014 when he intensified his efforts to cripple North Korea’s missile testing.

Using cyberweapons to disrupt launches is a radical innovation in missile defense in the past three decades. But in the case of North Korea, it is also the most difficult. It requires getting into the missile manufacturing, launch control and guidance systems of a country that makes very limited use of the internet and has few connections to the outside world — most of them through China, and to a lesser degree Russia.

In the operation that began in 2014, a range of cyber and electronic-interference operations were used against the North’s Musudan intermediate-range missiles, in an effort to slow its testing. But that secret effort had mixed results.

The failure rate for the Musudan missile soared to 88 percent, but it was never clear how much of that was due to the cyberattacks and how much to sabotage of the North’s supply chain and its own manufacturing errors. Then Kim Jong-un, the country’s president, ordered a change in design, and the test-launches have been far more successful.

The experience has raised difficult questions about the effectiveness of cyberweapons, despite billions of dollars in investment. “We can dream of a lot of targets to hack,” said Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Cyber Security Project at Harvard and formerly the director for cyberpolicy planning and operations in the office of the defense secretary. “But it can be hard to achieve the effects we want, when we want them.”

Congressional documents also talk of making “additional investments” in “boost-phase missile defense.” The goal of that approach is to hit long-range missiles at their point of greatest vulnerability — while their engines are firing and the vehicles are stressed to the breaking point, and before their warheads are deployed.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is also weighing, among other boost-phase plans, formulas that draw on existing technologies and could be deployed quickly.


The Avenger drone, made by General Atomics, has a wingspan of 76 feet and would potentially be used to shoot North Korean missiles as they are launched. CreditGeneral Atomics

One idea is having stealth fighters such as the F-22 or the F-35 scramble from nearby bases in South Korea and Japan at the first sign of North Korean launch preparations. The jets would carry conventional air-to-air missiles, which are 12 feet long, and fire them at the North Korean long-range missiles after they are launched. But they would have to fly relatively close to North Korea to do that, increasing the chances of being shot down.

A drawback of boost-phase defense is the short window to use it. Long-range missiles fire their engines for just five minutes or so, in contrast to warheads that zip through space for about 20 minutes before plunging back to earth. And there is the risk of inviting retaliation from North Korea.

“You have to make a decision to fire a weapon into somebody’s territory,” Gen. John E. Hyten of the Air Force, commander of the United States Strategic Command, which controls the American nuclear missile fleet, recently told a Washington group. “And if you’re wrong, or if you miss?”


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