North Korea’s “Dear Leader” knows America loves fireworks. His most spectacular missile tests often come on or near the Fourth of July. This year’s shot had a highly lofted trajectory, meaning it went high enough to prove it could go far enough to reach American territory – including America’s largest state. A macabre July 5 New York Post cover page translated “Crazy Kim’s” message as “KISS YOUR ALASKA GOODBYE.”
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Well, I live in Alaska, and I have no immediate intention to kiss my state, any state – or our loved ones — goodbye. While we went to parades and picnics, crews at Vandenberg AFB California and Ft. Greely Alaska missile defense installations remained at work, as always. Their job: prevent a nuclear fireball from blasting us to Kingdom Come – and prevent rogue nations from blackmailing us with that threat. Under commanders in Colorado Springs, these men and women have the capability to launch up to 36 interceptors at a missile from any adversary that puts America in its crosshairs.
Say a word of thanks that we have a missile defense capability at all.
Another North Korean missile test in August 1998 helped us recognize that missile threats to the US were expanding beyond the major powers of Russia and China. That test, and an Iranian launch, came shortly after the July 15, 1998, release of a report by a Commission led by Donald Rumsfeld. The former and future Defense Secretary’s report predicted that North Korea, Iraq and Iran could gain the ability to hit the U.S. homeland “with little or no warning” by 2010. That report was prescient, if off by just a few years.
So what’s the lesson of this year’s fireworks? There’s no question Kim Jong Un is calculating how to make his missiles go even further yet, and deliver deadlier payloads. Some of those missiles could even move to sea-based platforms, and be launched from commercial vessels somewhere at sea, with no national return address. The missile defenses we have now should not buy us complacency. North Korea and other adversaries are gaining technological ground. They will soon have the capability to launch multiple warheads and measures to confuse the defenses we currently have.
These threats are far more real and predictable than we expected in 1998. Large adversaries of the U.S. have had these weapons for years, and rocket builders for regional actors like North Korea and Iran have made significant strides over the last two decades. An American has to ask – with every other political distraction out there, is Congress paying attention?
For our missile defenses, at least two questions are ripe right now. For both, we should err on the side of building our capability and deterrence:
First, should the current number of America’s defensive missiles be expanded? In a word, yes. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan’s measure to increase our ground-based interceptor arsenal from the 40 being placed now to as many as 100 interceptors across America, the Advancing America’s Missile Defense (AAMD) Act, found traction in the Senate Armed Services Committee mark of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As the House and Senate get their versions to each other, this expansion study should stay.
Second, do we use best available technology to make these existing and new interceptors more effective? Yes, in another word. Improvements to Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), the only form of missile defense currently in place to counter long-range missiles like the one North Korea tested July 4, should be a priority. The Redesigned Kill Vehicle, an incremental technology upgrade designed to counter current missile threats, should be deployed as soon as possible. It will take a decade or more for a new generation of Multi-Object Kill Vehicles to be tested and ready for deployment. Putting a swarm of kill vehicles atop a single interceptor has great promise, and that research and development should go forward.
The heart of a missile defense interceptor is the warhead-killing collider kill vehicle. It deploys in space, and moves to collide with an incoming missile. Actual tests show our system is not perfect – more interceptors increase the chance we’re more effective. We no longer have the luxury of waiting for an adversary to improve its capability to hit us.
Some of us, most of our parents and all of our grandparents, lived in the bloodiest century on Earth that ended December 31, 1999. Weakness invites war, invites attack; our strength must continue to outrun those mad men abroad who work every day to exploit our vulnerabilities. Congress must resolve to counter dangerous global actors and support a strong missile defense.
Mead Treadwell, Lt. Governor of Alaska from 2010 to 2014, is a charter member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, which has since the mid-1990s studied and published independent views on how to deploy effective land, sea, air and space-based missile defenses for the U.S. homeland and U.S. forces and allies abroad.