On the Fourth of July last week, the world saw
one rocket’s red glare that wasn’t fired in celebration: North Korea launched the latest in a
series of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests. The timing was intentional, and the
North Korean news agency quoted its leader Kim Jong-un as saying, “The
American bastards must be quite unhappy after watching our strategic
decision.” Not exactly
diplomatic language. Although the
test missile went mostly straight up and down and landed harmlessly in the Sea
of Japan, if directed toward the east, experts say it could have reached as far
as parts of Alaska. According to
the New York Times report, it is
unlikely that Pyongyang has a small enough nuclear weapon to fit on their
ICBMs, but they seem to be devoting a great part of their pitifully small GNP
to reach their ultimate goal of being able to threaten the continental U. S.
with a nuclear warhead.
The North Korean government is one of the few
remaining bastions of old-fashioned, dictatorial despotism, and rational
behavior is not to be expected from them.
But missiles are.
There are some parallels between this situation
and the way the final years of the old Soviet Union played out. When President Reagan announced his
Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) in 1983, it arguably
contributed to the eventual downfall of the USSR as that nation’s confidence
waned that they could counter the U. S.’s initiative with anything as
effective. As it turned out, Star
Wars as originally planned never reached the deployment stage, but by 1991 the
USSR had cracked apart, and it wasn’t needed.
North Korea is different, in that they will
probably never have more than a few viable nuclear ICBMs. But even one nuclear bomb can spoil
your whole day, so since about 2000 the U. S. has been developing a kind of
mini-Star Wars system called the Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD).
Shooting down even one ICBM on the fly is a
very delicate undertaking that has been likened to shooting a bullet with
another bullet. Nevertheless, in
18 tests the system has successfully destroyed 10 targets. These are not encouraging odds, but it’s
not bad for a system whose funding and support has fluctuated wildly over the
years with the political climate in Washington.
Austin Bay is a retired colonel in the U. S.
Army Reserve whose service record goes back to the 1970s, and for some years
has written regular columns on national affairs from a military
perspective. I have always found
his viewpoints to be solidly grounded in factual information, and before the
latest North Korean missile launch, Bay noted in a May 31 column that the GMD
program was doing as well as you could expect in view of the “sparse and fitful”
testing it has had.
Compare the record of an average launch of one
per year for the GMD to the series of manned
as well as unmanned spaceflights that took place in the 1960s, leading up
to the moon launch: 14 launches (3
of which failed) for Project Mercury, 14 launches (two partial failures) for
Project Gemini, and 10 successful flights that led up to the triumphal landing
on the moon in 1969. All this
happened in only ten years, 1959 to 1969, which saw an average of nearly four
launches a year.
The world and the U. S. were very different
then, and the 1960s space program ate up a much larger proportion of the
federal budget than Washington is likely to tolerate today. But in North Korea’s missile launches,
we face a threat that is much less predictable than the old Soviet Union was,
and one that could quite possibly lead to hundreds or thousands of American
deaths in a nuclear attack. This
is serious business.
In contrast to what worked with the USSR,
merely announcing a greatly expanded GMD is not going to make much of an
impression on Kim Jong-un. As Bay
points out, the alternative to missile defense is diplomacy, and when the
Clinton Administration made an agreement with North Korea in 1994 to quit
making plutonium, evidence shows that the regime ignored us and went right
ahead with their nefarious plans.
It looks like North Korea won’t quit rattling
their nuclear saber until we grab every one they flaunt and crack it over our
GMD-equipped knees, to stretch a metaphor. But we can’t afford to attempt a shoot-down of one of their
missiles and miss—that would be worse than sitting on our hands. Bay thinks, and I agree, that the time
has come to get serious about ICBM defense, and that means a focused,
well-publicized, and well-funded effort, as independent as possible of
politics, to come up with a system that can be relied on to shoot down North
Korea-style missiles, say at least 90% of the time.
In the current fractious political atmosphere
in Washington, such a plan is way down toward the bottom of most politicians’
priority lists. It may take a
genuinely frightening incident such as an apparent attack by North Korea to
motivate enough voters to call for protection. But nobody (on our side, anyway) wants to go that far.
There are other things we can do about North
Korea, but unfortunately most of them are not unilateral: asking China to squeeze them a little,
solidifying alliances with Japan, South Korea, and other eastern nations
against the crackpot North Korea regime, and so on. While China doesn’t want its little neighbor incinerating
the planet by mistake, it is much more tolerant of North Korea’s human-rights
abuses and other misbehavior than we can accept in the U. S., and there is little
hope that the North Korean regime will change in response to anything that
In the meantime, the U. S. needs to defend
itself against attacks by foreign powers.
Everybody—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, you name it—agrees that
defense is one of the bottom-line functions of the federal government. However misdirected the defense budget
has been in the past, the problem of North Korea won’t go away. We need to finish the job that the
current GMD program has started, and develop and test it to the point that
people in Alaska and the rest of the western United States can go to sleep
without worrying that a rotund guy in Pyongyang is going to wake up one morning
and decide to drop a nuclear bomb on their heads—and nobody can stop him.