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A North Korean Taepodong-class missile is displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang on July 27, 2013. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Can North Korea's Ballistic Missiles be Stopped?

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

North Korea’s recent nuclear test is the 4th underground nuclear test since 2006. In a classic show of force meant to deter North Korea and assure the Republic of Korea (ROK) the U.S. responded by flying a B-52 nuclear-capable bomber over the ROK. Putting aside an important discussion about what more could and should be done to deter North Korea, it is a good time to take stock of what we know about North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon, and how good U.S. defenses actually are, should deterrence fail.

The regime in North Korea is committed to achieving the capability to target the United States with a nuclear armed ballistic missile. It has stated this, and dedicated scarce resources, while its people literally starve to make good on its threats. But North Korea is still considered a rogue state, without the technical sophistication and know-how like that of the United States, Russia, and China. Delivering a nuclear weapon across the Pacific, several thousand miles, to the United States requires advanced missile technology.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stated they believe North Korea has the capability to reach the United States with a ballistic missile. Short of North Korea proving this capability by fully testing an intercontinental-ballistic missile (ICBM), it has demonstrated the requisite technical expertise, such as with the space launch program. In 2009 it unsuccessfully attempted to place an object in orbit, but in conducting the launch, it demonstrated the same staging and separation technologies required to launch a two-stage Taepo-Dong 2 ICBM. This kind of missile is capable of reaching the shores of the United States.

The next, and far more challenging, technical hurdle to clear is to miniaturize a nuclear warhead for missile delivery. This is also quite difficult and many skeptics of North Korea’s capabilities have insisted it is years away. But to the dismay and shock of many, in 2011, Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO-5) revealed an unclassified Defense Intelligence Agency Report conclusion that said North Korea does have the capability. It says, “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however, the reliability will be low.”

But Pyongyang is not satisfied with merely having the ability to reach the United States. It also understands that the U.S. military could spot its preparation of a launch and preempt it. This is precisely what now Secretary of Defense Ash Carter argued the United States should do, if needed, in 2006.

It should have come as no surprise when in 2012 North Korea paraded what looked like what is called the KN-08 ICBM, a road-mobile missile that could strike much deeper targets than merely the West Coast of the U.S. The launcher could remain hidden from U.S. surveillance, rolled out, and more quickly launched, significantly decreasing U.S. decision time to preempt an attack. The NK-08 transporter/launcher also appeared to be of Chinese origin. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed in a Congressional hearing that China was helping to some degree on the Nork Korean missile program. Delivering missile parts to North Korea is a clear violation of United Nation Security Council Resolutions. Still, it remained unconfirmed whether the KN-08 in the parade was a mock-up or the real thing. In April of 2015 Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, clarified that the United States did, in fact, understand the KN-08 to be operational.

In addition to help from the Chinese on its missile program, the North Korean’s also receive help from the Iranians. Indeed, the Iranians have been one of North Korea’s biggest missile clients and Iranian scientists have been spotted at the missile tests. The Obama administration has failed to see (or find sufficiently problematic) that the windfall of sanctions relief from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran could serve as a boon for the North Korean nuclear missile program. As Omri Ceren, warned: “… [T]he nuclear deal with Iran will become a multi-billion dollar jobs program for North Korean nuclear engineers, who will use the money to create and miniaturize more nuclear warheads, which they will then give back to Tehran. The deal doesn’t stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It finances the program.”

Thankfully, the last several heads of Northern Command and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) have expressed confidence that the current homeland missile defense system would be able to successfully intercept the kinds of threats possessed by North Korea and Iran. This missile defense system is called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. There will be a total of 44 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in place by the end of next year. Skeptics of missile defense, and there remain a few, insist the GMD program “doesn’t work.” Nevertheless, it has successfully intercepted a target 9 of 17 times. When President George Bush called for the initial deployment of the system, however, it was always the plan to improve it as the technology developed and as the threats continued to evolve.

Before the United States deployed GMD, there was nothing in place to protect American cities from potential missile attack. Each intercept test— regardless of successful intercept— and each flight test has helped engineers learn how to improve the system’s reliability. For example, it was determined after several failed intercepts that the cause was due to the kill vehicle design. Since then, MDA has set out to develop what it is calling the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV). With sufficient political support and prioritization, this should significantly improve the reliability of the system. Another way to improve reliability is to increase the quantity of deployed interceptors.

The Obama administration, hesitant to fully invest in the system, showed that it understood the threat simply required an improvement to GMD. In March of 2013, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, announced that the administration would be deploying 14 more interceptors (bringing the total to the planned 44) in response to the increased North Korean ballistic missile threat. While this announcement was welcome, it should be noted that the only reason these interceptors were not already deployed is because the Obama administration cancelled the Bush administration plan to do just that. In the same announcement Secretary Hagel also said the administration would look at the possibility of expanding the system beyond the 44 by emplacing a third interceptor site in the continental United States. Nearly three years later, and with the missile threats from Iran and North Korea growing, it has failed to move forward with deployments.

It comes as no surprise that all of this requires great political will to ensure the system can provide optimal protection of the American people given the current and most likely ICBM threats posed especially by North Korea. The Obama administration has funded regional missile defense systems abroad at the expense of GMD, and found itself underprepared when North Korea showed it had an operational road-mobile ICBM. North Korea and Iran will continue to improve their missile programs and U.S. ballistic missile defense must outpace the threat. Moreover, Russia and China’s missile and nuclear programs, combined with their provocative activities over the last several years, underscore the need for the United States reconsider its unofficial policy of only defending against the most limited kinds of missile threats.

The next President must do more than say homeland missile defense is a priority. He must invest in new technologies, deploy additional GBIs, support a rigorous testing program to improve it, and should not hesitate to deploy additional radar as needed. But given the foreign policy blunders that have plagued the United States over the last several years, the diversity of the missile threat, and the unpredictable nature of regimes like North Korea, a robust missile defense system is simply non-optional.

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