North Korea’s Missiles Cannot Be Shot Out of the Sky

The reassuring notion held among most Americans that we can shoot down North Korean missiles is wishful thinking.

A bevvy of experts insists that the science of shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles is largely untested and spotty when anti missile defenses are used.

“It’s time national leaders speak realistically about missile defense,” insists Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It’s Too Late.

He claims the recent Japanese flyovers by North Korean missiles were so fast and at such a high altitude that shooting them down is a near impossibility.

The key word here is “over.” Like way over. Like 770 kilometers (475 miles) over Japan at the apogee of its flight path. Neither Japan nor the United States could have intercepted the missile. None of the theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high. It is hundreds of kilometers too high for the Aegis interceptors deployed on Navy ships off Japan. Even higher for the THAAD systems in South Korea and Guam. Way too high for the Patriot systems in Japan, which engage largely within the atmosphere, according to Cirincione.

Here are just a few of his postulations, a bit unnerving to those of us feeling our defense systems can protect us from a nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles.

There is almost no chance of hitting a North Korean missile on its way up unless an Aegis ship was deployed very close to the launch point, perhaps in North Korean waters. Even then, it would have to chase the missile, a race it is unlikely to win. In the only one or two minutes of warning time any system would have, the probability of a successful engagement drops close to zero.

“It’s actually virtually impossible to shoot down a missile on the way up,” adds Gerry Doyle, deputy business editor for Asia at The New York Times. “Midcourse or terminal are the only places you have a shot.” That would mean for a test missile shot towards Guam, THAAD would have a chance to engage, though it has only been tested once against a missile of this range. For the test flights over Japan that would mean the only engagements possible are to the east of Japan, when the missile was on its way down. But there is little reason and huge logistical difficulties in having U.S. Aegis destroyers and cruisers loiter in the ocean there, waiting for a possible test launch.

Trying to use missiles from Aegis ships “would be a highly demanding task and entail a significant amount of guesswork, as the ships would have to be in the right place at the right time to stop a test at sea,” explains Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association. And that is if the systems worked as advertised. None of the theater systems have been tested under the stressful conditions of a real-world exchange. THAAD, Patriot and especially Aegis, have done fairly well in tests, but these have been tests designed for success, simplified, carefully staged and using mostly short-range targets. Aegis has only been tested once against an intermediate-range target says Reif, one of the leading experts on U.S. missile defense programs.

“The success rate of the GMD systems in flight intercept tests has been dismal,” says former director of operational testing for the Pentagon, Philip Coyle. Our chances of intercepting a threat missile, even under ideal conditions, are basically “as good as a coin toss,” admits the former head of the Missile Defense Agency, retired Lt. Gen. Trey Obering.

Yet, reporters routinely use words like “shield” and “dome” to describe our supposed capability, giving us a false sense of security. Officials make the matter worse with exaggerated, if carefully constructed, claims. “The United States military can defend against a limited North Korea attack on Seoul, Japan, and the United States,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford at the annual Aspen Security Forum in July.

North Korea’s ballistic missile threat is real. We need to know if our missile defenses are for real, writes Cirincione.



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