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Top general says US still vulnerable to North Korean missiles

The head of the Missile Defense Agency has expressed concerns about America's long-term ability to defend the homeland in the face of growing threats from North Korea.


The U.S. military conducted a successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) intercept test in May. An interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California eliminated a mock long-range missile fired from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The results of the test have boosted the MDA's confidence, but there is still much more work to be done.

The test involved a new exoatmospheric kill vehicle and a faster target, although perhaps not as fast an actual incoming ICBM.

Vice Admiral James Syring, the director of the MDA, told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday that the recent intercept test was an "exact replica" of what the U.S. would face in the event of a North Korean missile strike.

"The scenario that we conducted was maybe more operationally realistic than not," he explained.

Although the recent test was successful, Syring expressed concerns about the North Korean ballistic missile threat.

North Korea has tested multiple new ballistic missile systems this year. The Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile and Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile could be the technological predecessors to liquid and solid-fueled ICBM systems.

"Today, we are ahead" of the threat, Syring explained in his testimony, "We need to stay ahead."

"I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat; I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today," Syring testified. "The advancements in the last six months have caused great concern to me and others, in the advancement of and demonstration of technology of ballistic missiles from North Korea."

North Korea does not yet have an ICBM, but it appears to be moving in that direction at an accelerated pace. While the North may still be several years from developing this kind of technology, defense officials believe that it is necessary to assume that North Korea can "range" the U.S. with a long-range ballistic missile.

In the wake of the recent test, the Department of Defense upgraded its assessment of the capabilities of the U.S. missile shield. For years, the U.S. has maintained "limited capability" to defend against North Korean missiles. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system has "demonstrated the capability to defend the U.S. homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental missile threats with simple countermeasures," the Pentagon said in a recent memo, according to Reuters.

During a test of the nation's ballistic missile defense system on May 31, 2017, the U.S. successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target. Photo by U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Nonetheless, the system needs improvements. "It's just not the interceptor, the entire system," Syring said June 7, "We are not there yet."

"We have continued work with the redesigned kill vehicle. We have continued work with the reliability of the other components of the system to make it totally reliable," he said. "We are not done yet."

Some expert observers have suggested that the recent intercept test may not have been as realistic as the MDA claims, leaving something to be desired.

"I think Syring was overstating the case," Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told The DCNF. "A real situation involving ICBM attack could include such unpleasant circumstances as multiple, simultaneous launches on different trajectories; decoys and chaff; intercepts in the shadow of the Earth (not illuminated by sunlight); and attacks on the [Ballistic Missile Defense] system itself by various means."

"The intercept geometry, as depicted by MDA, in no way, shape or form resembles a [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] ICBM attack against [the continental U.S.]," Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, tweeted Wednesday. "To be fair, MDA was right to walk before trying to run. A (sic) easy test is totally fine, but Adm. Syring appears to be over-claiming a bit."

The range of the mock ICBM was 5,800 kilometers, which would give the missile a much slower closing speed than a real North Korean ICBM covering a distance of 9,000 to 11,000 kilometers would have. Faster closing speeds, according to Laura Grego, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, "give the interceptor less time to make course corrections, and are therefore more stressing for the interceptor."

A North Korean propaganda poster depicting a missile firing at the United States. (Photo by Flickr)

The head-on engagement trajectory of the May test is also inconsistent with the likely conditions of a North Korean strike.

"This test approximates many aspects of an intercept against an ICBM launched from North Korea, but the target and intercept geometry would be very different in a real attack," Lewis told TheDCNF. "The missile would be launched closer to the interceptor site, would have a significantly longer range, and (in the case of an attack on DC) moving away from the interceptor site at a much greater angle."

"MDA is limited by the existing test infrastructure and the very high cost of tests, so we should be reasonable about how realistic MDA can make any test," he added. "But, in exchange, MDA needs to be reasonable in making claims about what has been demonstrated."

Other scholars, however, believe the recent intercept test was a big breakthrough.

"This is a good day for homeland missile defense and a bad day for Kim Jong-un," Thomas Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in response to the test.

During the June 7 congressional hearing, Syring said that in an actual combat scenario, the U.S. would fire off a salvo of interceptors to better address the threat.

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