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Published on Feb 26, 2013
Why Didn’t the US Shoot Down That North Korean Missile?
- BY PATRICK TUCKERREAD BIO
AUGUST 29, 2017
The military’s record of hitting intermediate-range missiles is less than perfect. That makes the decision to attempt an intercept much harder.
This story has been updated to reflect recent developments overnight.
North Korea launched another medium-range missile on Monday, this one right over Japan. Despite Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ threats to shoot down missiles aimed at Guam and President Donald Trump’s Pyongyang-aimed bluster, the United States and Japan let it fly. Why?
After the test, Trump on Tuesday said that “all options are on the table,” as every president has said for decades. But the Pentagon is still reluctant to use some of the most obvious options, such as shooting down a missile above the earth’s atmosphere with another missile fired from a ship.
The United States has 33 Aegis warships (three more are slated to arrive next year) that can launch an interceptor to hit a mid- or intermediate-range missile like the Hwasong-12 that North Korea sent over Hokkaido. Sixteen of those warships are currently in the Pacific.
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Pacific Command, in Honolulu did not respond to questions about why they didn’t attempt to down Monday’s missile. The command did issue a statement: “North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,”
Mattis said earlier this month that any North Korean missile headed toward U.S. land, including Guam and other territories, would be shot down and considered war against the United States. But, he added, if the missile were tracking to land in the sea, it would be the president’s call what to do about it.
Tom Karako, senior fellow and missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that if the missile launched Monday were really a threat to the United States or even Japan “then presumably we may well have attempted to engage it.”
But what are the costs and what are the benefits in attempting such an intercept? Anti-missile interceptors like the ones on U.S. warships are designed to hit enemy missiles as they reach peak altitude — in the case of the Hwasong-12, that’s above 3,500 kilometers. The United States has demonstrated that it can intercept mid-range and slightly higher intermediate-range missile. But the test record includes embarrassing and recent failures.
Between January 2002 and August 14 of this year, the Defense Department attempted 37 interceptsof a mid-range missile and hit the target 29 times with an SM-3. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest, according to the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Testing and Engineering, is that realistic testing of interceptors is very expensive and requires a lot of lead time and support.
Update: On Wednesday morning, MDA conducted another successful intercept test using an SM-6 aboard a warship against a medium-range ballistic missile target. “The USS John Paul Jones detected and tracked a target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar,” the agency said in a press statement.
In February, MDA showed that their newest version of the standard missile, the SM-3 IIA, could hit a mid-range missile. But a second test in June was a failure. The Navy later attributed that to human error. But 50 percent is not a good record for the most advanced intermediate-range interceptor in the U.S. arsenal.
The Obama administration pushed hard for a ship-based defense against mid-range North Korean missiles aimed at Japan or Guam but found that the military has much better chance of hitting missiles that don’t fly so high.
Shooting down an enemy missile aimed at U.S.territory may be good defense, but shooting down a missile test aimed at the sea would be an act of war. Or so argued North Korea.
“Taking a shot at a North Korean missile is not something the U.S. military would do lightly or without a directive to do so,” said Karako. “if we are going to shoot at something, we will do it like we mean it. But there has to be a good reason to do it. That reason might be if there is an actual threat to the U.S., its forces, or our allies. Or it might be if the U.S. or Japan adopts a policy to intercept certain types of missiles or those on certain kinds of trajectory. But that would have to be a deliberate policy choice.”
The highest probability of success would be to hit the enemy missile closer to the ground, during the so-called boost phase. That’s what MDA is aiming for in the future with laser-armed drones. In July, the agency put out a request for information for a high-altitude long endurance aircraft. Read that to mean a drone that can fly above 63,000 feet for a long time. According to the request, the drone should have enough power for a 140-kw laser. But that program won’t even begin testing until 2023. Until then, and likely even after, every time a missile heads toward Japan, Guam, or anywhere else, military leaders will have to decide whether attempting to shoot down North Korean missiles is worth the costs of possibly missing — or starting a war.
- Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years. Tucker has written about emerging technology in Slate, … FULL BIO
U.S. general: North Korea ICBM threat advancing faster than expected
2 MIN READ
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. General Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, said on Thursday that North Korea’s July 4 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile showed its capabilities were advancing significantly and faster than many had expected.
Milley, in remarks to the National Press Club in Washington, said there was still time for a non-military solution to the crisis caused by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but cautioned that “time is running out.”
“North Korea is extremely dangerous and more dangerous as the weeks go by,” he said.
U.S. media reported this week that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon spy agency, had assessed that North Korea would be able to field a nuclear-capable ICBM by next year, earlier than previously thought.
However, two U.S. officials said some other analysts who study North Korea’s missile program did not agree with the assessment, although there was no question that Pyongyang had moved further and faster in its efforts.
U.S. officials said on Tuesday they had seen increased North Korean activity that could be preparations for another missile test within days.
After its July 4 test, North Korea said it had mastered the technology needed to deploy a nuclear warhead via the missile. It also said the test verified the atmospheric re-entry of the warhead, which experts say may be able to reach the U.S. state of Alaska.
North Korea has made no secret of its plans to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the United States and has ignored international calls to halt its weapons programs.
The vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, said last week that North Korea did not have the ability to strike the United States with “any degree of accuracy” and that while its missiles had the range, they lacked the necessary guidance capability.
Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool
Russian 6th-generation fighter will employ powerful lasers to burn enemy missile
Air-to-ground or air-to-air missiles have one thing in common — they have a seeker head, or targeting system on the missile that uses radar or heat-seeking technology to find and lead the weapon to the target to destroy it.
The Russian defense industry says it will deploy powerful lasers on its new sixth-generation fighter that will be able to “burn” enemy homing systems on projectiles fired in their direction, to make them unable to hit a target.
“We already have laser protection systems installed on aircraft and helicopters, and now we are talking about developments in the field of powered lasers that will be able to physically destroy attacking missiles’ homing heads. … Roughly speaking, we’ll be able to burn out ‘the eyes’ of missiles that ‘look at us.’ Naturally, such systems will be installed on sixth-generation aircraft as well,” said the Adviser to the First Deputy CEO of Radio-Electronic Technologies Group (KRET) Vladimir Mikheyev, reported Russian state news agency TASS.
Drone technology is also a high priority for the Russian defense industry. Manned aircraft flying alongside swarms of unmanned drones is a concept being developed on both sides of the Atlantic.
“One drone in a formation flight will carry microwave weapons, including guided electronic munitions while another drone will carry radio-electronic suppression and destruction means, and a third UAV will be armed with a set of standard weaponry. Each specific task is solved by different armaments,” Mr. Mikheyev added.
Microwave weapons will complement the laser components on manned aircraft also.
“The use of microwave weapons is highly problematic for a plane with a pilot due to the need to preserve his life. But if we develop an additional system of protection against our own microwave weapons, we’ll lose even more space and the weight margin. Besides, even the most complex and effective system can be insufficiently efficient,” he said.
Combined with advanced radar concepts, the array of new technologies will be formidable.
“The radio-photonic radar will be able to see farther than existing radars, in our estimates. And, as we irradiate an enemy in an unprecedentedly wide range of frequencies, we’ll know its position with the highest accuracy and after processing, we’ll get an almost photographic image of it — radio vision. … This is important for determining the type [of an aircraft]: The plane’s computer will immediately and automatically identify a flying object, for example, an F-18 with specific types of missile armament,” Mr. Mikheyev said.
The analysis, completed last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency, comes on the heels of another intelligence assessment that sharply raises the official estimate for the total number of bombs in the communist country’s atomic arsenal. The United States calculated last month that up to 60 nuclear weapons are now controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Some independent experts think the number is much smaller.
The findings are likely to deepen concerns about an evolving North Korean military threat that appears to be advancing far more rapidly than many experts had predicted. U.S. officials concluded last month that Pyongyang is also outpacing expectations in its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the American mainland.
President Trump, speaking Tuesday at an event at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., said North Korea will face a devastating response if its threats continue. “They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, North Korea described a new round of U.N. sanctions as an attempt “to strangle a nation” and warned that in response, “physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilization of all its national strength.”
Although more than a decade has passed since North Korea’s first nuclear detonation, many analysts thought it would be years before the country’s weapons scientists could design a compact warhead that could be delivered by missile to distant targets. But the new assessment, a summary document dated July 28, concludes that this critical milestone has been reached.
“The IC [intelligence community] assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles,” the assessment states, in an excerpt read to The Washington Post. Two U.S. officials familiar with the assessment verified its broad conclusions. It is not known whether the reclusive regime has successfully tested the smaller design, although North Korea officially claimed last year that it had done so.
The DIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
An assessment this week by the Japanese Ministry of Defense also concludes that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has achieved miniaturization.
Kim is becoming increasingly confident in the reliability of his nuclear arsenal, analysts have concluded, explaining perhaps the dictator’s willingness to engage in defiant behavior, including missile tests that have drawn criticism even from North Korea’s closest ally, China. On Saturday, China and Russia joined other members of the U.N. Security Council in approving punishing new economic sanctions, including a ban on exports that supply up to a third of North Korea’s annual $3 billion in earnings.
The nuclear progress further raises the stakes for Trump, who has vowed that North Korea will never be allowed to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. In an interview broadcast Saturday on MSNBC’s “Hugh Hewitt Show,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the prospect of a North Korea armed with nuclear-tipped ICBMs would be “intolerable, from the president’s perspective.”
“We have to provide all options . . . and that includes a military option,” he said. But McMaster said the administration would do everything short of war to “pressure Kim Jong Un and those around him, such that they conclude it is in their interest, to denuclearize.” The options said to be under discussion range from new multilateral negotiations to reintroducing U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, officials familiar with internal discussions said.
At the same time, the administration has been attempting to push North Korea toward talks, but Pyongyang has shown no interest in dialogue.
Determining the precise makeup of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has long been a difficult challenge for intelligence officials because of the regime’s culture of extreme secrecy and insularity. The country’s weapons scientists have conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, the latest being a 20- to 30-kiloton detonation on Sept. 9, 2016, that produced a blast estimated to be up to twice that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
But producing a compact nuclear warhead that can fit inside a missile is a technically demanding feat, one that many analysts thought was still beyond North Korea’s grasp. Last year, state-run media in Pyongyang displayed a spherical device that government spokesmen described as a miniaturized nuclear warhead, but whether it was a real bomb remained unclear. North Korean officials described the September detonation as a successful test of a small warhead designed to fit on a missile, although many experts were skeptical of the claim.
Kim has repeatedly proclaimed his intention to field a fleet of nuclear-tipped ICBMs as a guarantor of his regime’s survival. His regime took a major step toward that goal last month with the first successful tests of a missile with intercontinental range. Video analysis of the latest test led some analysts to conclude that the missile caught fire and disintegrated as it plunged back toward Earth’s surface, suggesting that North Korea’s engineers might not be capable yet of building a reentry vehicle that can carry the warhead safely through the upper atmosphere. But U.S. analysts and many independent experts think this hurdle will be overcome by late next year.
“What initially looked like a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis is now looking more like the Manhattan Project, just barreling along,” said Robert Litwak, a nonproliferation expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout,” published by the center this year. “There’s a sense of urgency behind the program that is new to the Kim Jong Un era.”
Although few discount North Korea’s progress, some prominent U.S. experts warned against the danger of overestimating the threat. Siegfried Hecker, director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the last known U.S. official to inspect North Korea’s nuclear facilities, has calculated the size of North Korea’s arsenal at no more than 20 to 25 bombs. He warned of potential risks that can come from making Kim into a bigger menace than he actually is.
“Overselling is particularly dangerous,” said Hecker, who visited North Korea seven times between 2004 and 2010, and met with key leaders of the country’s weapons programs. “Some like to depict Kim as being crazy — a madman — and that makes the public believe that the guy is undeterrable. He’s not crazy and he’s not suicidal. And he’s not even unpredictable.”
“The real threat,” Hecker said, “is we’re going to stumble into a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.”
In the past, U.S. intelligence agencies have occasionally overestimated the North Korean threat. In the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration assessed that Pyongyang was close to developing an ICBM that could strike the U.S. mainland — a prediction that missed the mark by more than a decade. More recently, however, analysts and policymakers have been surprised repeatedly as North Korea achieved key milestones months or years ahead of schedule, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. There was similar skepticism about China’s capabilities in the early 1960s, said Lewis, who has studied that country’s pathway to a successful nuclear test in 1964.
“There is no reason to think that the North Koreans aren’t making the same progress after so many successful nuclear explosions,” Lewis said. “The big question is: Why do we hold the North Koreans to a different standard than we held [Joseph] Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao Zedong’s China? North Korea is testing underground, so we’re always going to lack a lot of details. But it seems to me a lot of people are insisting on impossible levels of proof because they simply don’t want to accept what should be pretty obvious.”
Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Paris (AFP) – An asteroid the size of a house will shave past Earth at a distance of some 44,000 kilometres (27,300 miles) in October, inside the Moon’s orbit, astronomers said Thursday.
The space rock will zoom by at an eighth of the distance from the Earth to the Moon — far enough to just miss our geostationary satellites orbiting at about 36,000 kilometres, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).
“It will not hit the Earth,” said Detlef Koschny of ESA’s “Near Earth Objects” research team. “That’s the most important thing to say.”
The asteroid, dubbed TC4, first flitted past our planet in October 2012 — then at about double the distance before disappearing. It is about 15-30 metres (49-98 feet) long.
Scientists expected the asteroid to return for a near-Earth rendezvous this year, but did not know how far.
Now, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile has managed to track down the rock and determine its distance.
“It’s damn close,” said Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
“The farthest satellites are 36,000 kilometres out, so this is indeed a close miss,” he told AFP, adding it was nothing to lose sleep over.
“As close as it is right now, I think this prediction is pretty safe… meaning that it will miss.”