Thursday, June 22, 2006

So Sadly Alone

It would be foolish for North Korea to doubt the seriousness of the US when it comes to its ICBM program. The Pentagon has already spent more money on a missile-defense system designed specifically to intercept a ballistic-missile attack from North Korea than it would have taken to buy them a light-water nuclear reactor. If I may quote a previous post on Situational Awareness:

Since 1985, about $90 billion has been spent on missile defense by the US under various programs, beginning with the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) through the Clinton administration's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and into today's Missile Defense Agency. But funding since fiscal year 2001, at $4.8 billion, has been stepped up quite a bit, with $7.8 billion in FY02, $7.4 billion in FY03, $7.7 billion in FY04, and $9 billion in FY05. Missile defense accounts for about 2% of the Defense Department budget, more than any other program.

Since the mid-1990s, US defense planners have seen an "urgent need" for a missile defense system to defend against an end-game ICBM launch from North Korea. With surprisingly little fanfare, considering, the US has deployed this capability with a fast-track program using prototype systems and minimum testing. This is a high-risk, high-cost approach to any military program, not to mention one that requires the flawless execution of a long and complex sequence of events in order to be successful. But there it is.

The other day I was sort of joking about how "cool" it would be for the US to use the occasion of a North Korean test launch to try out our Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system (see previous post). However, the US does not consider this to be a laughing matter. There are voices calling for a preemptive attack on the North Korean launch site in order to make sure the test launch does not occur. This is not mere belicosity. Preventing a launch would deny the North Koreans the knowledge of whether their prototype Taepo Dong-II missile design works or not. Denying the North Koreans this knowledge would increase the uncertainty in the minds of those who might contemplate an end-game missile attack on the US. As I said before, lashing out with unproven systems is much more risky than striking with proven ones.

While a US preemptive strike on North Korea's ICBM prototype certainly would have negative repercussions, consider the US investment in its missile defense program proof that stopping a test launch has the highest priority. Right now, US officials are stressing diplomacy. But the bombers are standing by.

UPDATE: Really. It's a big deal.

UPDATE 2: No, really...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Only in Novels

The North Koreans have been posturing about testing a new ICBM, probably the reported Taepo Dong II or Taepo Dong-X prototype. The US has been posturing for them not to try it. Now, there is a report about how if the North Koreans actually do fire the thing off, we might use the opportunity to shoot it down with the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system that is being made operational incrementally. Background on that, here. (Please forgive the broken eDefense links. Can't be helped.)

Now, there are all sorts of reasons not to take a shot at the North Korean ICBM: chief among these is the embarrassment of failure. But come on, sometimes you just have to take a shot. If only for the theatrical beauty of the act.

The funny thing is, North Korea's erratic testing regime with regard to its ballistic missile capability is the sort of activity that prompted accelerated deployment of the GMD to begin with. The US missile defense system, based primarily around interceptor missiles based in Alaska with attending radar and command and control systems, could not defeat any sort of determined attack by China, let alone Russia. However, US defense industry officials have expressed confidence that the GMD, as currently configured, could indeed defeat a one-off, two-off attack from North Korea. And, indeed, it is the expectation that an attack would be launched as the regime collapsed, or in some other obscure and undeterable circumstance, that is the GMD's reason d'etre.

Is the North Korean test launch, if it happens, likely to be a sneak attack? Hardly. Neither the missile nor its payload have been tested. And the North Koreans haven't sounded erratic enough to be ready to go out on such a potential train-wreck of prototypes. So there's every reason to just sit back and watch the launch fail or succeed.

But it would be cool to take the shoot, wouldn't it?