North Korea

North Korean nuclear threats make this missile defense conference more important than ever

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Photo: Donny Ferguson

While North Korea reportedly achieved another milestone in developing a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. homeland, The Heritage Foundation visited the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, a city that lives and breathes ballistic missile defense.

The conference is a gathering for policy experts, the military, industry representatives, on all issues related to space and missile defense policy.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, set the tone for the conference when he argued for the need to change the overly risk-averse culture of the space and missile defense acquisition community, particularly since the U.S. is at risk of being outpaced by its adversaries.

He emphasized the need to learn from program failures so that the United States is better able to address problems in its test program, since the whole point is to ensure the country’s strategic defense system works when it counts—for example, when North Korea succeeds in weaponizing its long-range ballistic missiles.

A common theme across all speakers and participants was increased concern over threats that the United States will face in the near future.

Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, argued that not only are adversaries making advances in their capabilities, but also that in a conflict with the United States, they would use them to disrupt the ability of the U.S. and its allies to integrate defense measures across domains.

Everyone accepted that the United States will be contested in all domains, perhaps simultaneously.

The conference offered a great opportunity to expand the discussion about U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities. Much work remains to be done if the United States is to get ahead of the ballistic missile threat.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves is the director of the Missile Defense Agency and responsible for U.S. missile defense efforts. The Missile Defense Agency’s priorities are to continue to focus on increasing system reliability to build warfighter confidence, increase engagement capability and capacity, and address the advanced threat.

North Korea is reportedly now capable of targeting most of the U.S. homeland and has miniaturized its nuclear warheads such that they can be carried by its long-range ballistic missiles.

Greaves argued that the Missile Defense Agency fully appreciates the value of experimentation and testing, especially when it includes failures because this is the only way to learn what works. His agency plans to test U.S. missile defense systems as often as possible.

According to Greaves, the ballistic missile threat has evolved substantially and continues to evolve. The Missile Defense Agency currently has a credible midcourse and terminal phase missile defense system and is aggressively pursuing boost phase defense.

That is good news, as ballistic missiles are most vulnerable in their boost phase before they are able to deploy decoys and countermeasures and before they achieve maximum speeds.

“U.S. missile defense would be too susceptible to defense suppression,” argued Tom Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In a piece of innovative missile defense thinking, Karako proposes that the United States put missile defense launchers in transportable containers to increase the adversary’s cost of destroying them. It is harder, and much more expensive, to target launchers that are hidden and easily moved.

If the United States is to stay ahead of the threat, it must invest in the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, and particularly, increase investments into future ballistic missile defense technologies.
Commentary by Michaela Dodge. Originally published at The Daily Signal.

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