Washington — Not everybody asserts that the US military can defend the US from the growing threat posed by North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability as confidently as the Pentagon.
Pyongyang’s first test, on Tuesday, of an ICBM with the potential to strike the state of Alaska has raised the question as to how capable the US military is of knocking down an incoming missile or barrage of missiles.
Briefing reporters on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Navy captain Jeff Davis said: "We do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there."
Davis cited a successful test in May in which a US-based missile interceptor knocked down a simulated incoming North Korean ICBM, but he acknowledged the test’s track programme was not perfect. "It’s something we have mixed results on, but we also have an ability to shoot more than one interceptor."
An internal memo seen by Reuters also showed that the Pentagon upgraded its assessment of US defences after the May test. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on a multi-layered missile defence system, the US may not be able to seal itself off entirely from a North Korean ICBM attack.
Experts caution that US missile defences are now geared to shooting down one, or perhaps a small number of basic, incoming missiles. Were North Korea’s technology and production to keep advancing, US defences could be overwhelmed unless they keep pace with the threat.
"Over the next four years, the US has to increase its current capacity of our deployed systems, aggressively push for more and faster deployment," said Riki Ellison, founder of the Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance (MDA).
The test records of the MDA, charged with the mission of developing, testing and fielding a ballistic missile defence system, also show mixed results. MDA systems have multiple layers and ranges and use sensors in space, at sea and on land that, altogether, form a defence for different US regions and territories.
One component, the ground-based mid-course defence system (GMD), demonstrated a success rate just above 55%. A second component, the Aegis system deployed aboard US Navy ships and on land, had about an 83% success rate, according to the agency.
A third, the terminal high-altitude area defence, or THAAD, anti-missile system, has a 100% success rate in 13 tests conducted since 2006, according to the MDA. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for THAAD and Aegis. Boeing is the lead contractor for GMD.
Since Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s, the US government has spent more than $200bn to develop and field a range of ballistic missile defence systems ranging from satellite detection to the sea-based Aegis system, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Funding for MDA was, on average, $8.12bn during former president Barack Obama’s administration. President Donald Trump has requested $7.8bn for fiscal year 2018.
‘Another year or two’
Last month, vice-admiral James Syring, then director of the MDA, told a congressional panel that North Korean advancements in the past six months have caused him great concern.
US-based missile expert John Schilling, a contributor to the Washington-based North Korea monitoring project 38 North, said the pace of North Korea’s missile development was quicker than expected. "However, it will probably require another year or two of development before this missile can reliably and accurately hit high-value continental US targets, particularly if fired under wartime conditions."
Michael Elleman, a fellow for Missile Defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that although North Korea was several steps from creating a dependable ICBM, "there are absolutely no guarantees" the US can protect itself. In missile defence, "even if it had a test record of 100%, there are no guarantees".