What dodging North Korean missiles taught me about shooting down Kim Jong Un’s growing arsenal

North Korea Hwasong-12 missile launch
A photo of what North Korea’s government said was the August 29, 2017, test launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile.

  • A North Korean missile launch in August 2017 sent people in South Korea and Japan scrambling to bunkers.
  • The missile broke up and fell into the Pacific, but North Korea’s growing missile arsenal remains a concern.
  • The US, South Korea, and Japan all have missile defenses, but stopping an incoming missile is no easy feat.
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As a South Korean military interpreter participating in a combined exercise with the US on August 29, 2017, my day began with a jolt, as a North Korean ballistic missile hurtled toward Japan at 6:00 a.m.

Not knowing the exact trajectory in the first few minutes, I quickly headed into underground bunkers near Seoul with my fellow service members.

Radars predicted that the missile would cross Japan’s airspace over its northernmost island, Hokkaido. Japan was faced with two options: shoot it down or let it pass.

The Japanese government chose not to intercept that missile. It ultimately fractured into three pieces and landed in the Pacific Ocean, but debris could have fallen onto unsuspecting citizens. Even worse, an actual nuclear strike could wipe out an entire city.

With North Korea demonstrating its ability to reach most of the US, improving missile-defense systems has quickly become a concern for everyday citizens.

Tokyo’s decision to disregard that ballistic missile compelled me to ask whether South Korea, Japan, and the US were well prepared for such missile threats.

Layered defenses, split-second decisions

Japanese TV report on North Korea missile launch
A TV news program reporting on North Korea’s missile launch, in Tokyo, August 29, 2017.

The US defends its territory with a layered system that has several chances to intercept a North Korean missile: in the boost phase soon after launch near the Korean Peninsula and Japan, again over the ocean during the missile’s midcourse phase, and lastly near US territory as the missile enters its terminal phase.

All three options, however, need much improvement.

An intercept over the ocean is challenging because Aegis ships and fighter jets must anticipate where it will impact, which is made more challenging by the fact that Aegis ships and fighters have never attempted to intercept a ballistic missile in combat.

For land-based defense, the Pentagon has slammed its own flagship system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, for its insufficient radars and unreliability: Its success rate is barely over 50%.

Improving the intercept ability of South Korea and Japan has therefore been important to the US’s own national interests.

aegis
US Navy Aegis-equipped destroyer USS Hopper launches a Standard Missile 3 during an exercise in the Pacific Ocean, July 30, 2009.

The US’s recent termination of the missile guidelines it imposed on South Korea in 1979 is a step toward allowing its allies to prepare defenses for North Korea’s long-range missiles.

With limits on the range and payload of its missiles now lifted, South Korea will be able to develop advanced missile-defense systems that could help deter long-range missile attacks.

My experience dodging North Korean missiles, however, highlights the need to review the intercept process further to reduce the risks posed by needing to make a split-second decision. Hesitance to shoot down missiles shows that technological ability does not necessarily equal safety.

Why did those countries decide not to respond during that August 2017 missile test? Within minutes of the launch, most countries could tell from radar tracking that the missile was headed toward the Pacific Ocean.

In the case of Japan, the government may have decided not to attempt to do so simply because it was an unnecessary risk. The missile appeared unlikely to harm civilians, and, more importantly, a failed attempt would send a catastrophic message that its US-backed missile system cannot stop North Korean missiles.

THAAD
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor in Seongju, South Korea, June 13, 2017.

A second possibility, however, is that Japan’s Aegis destroyers were unable to intercept the missile in the first place.

The North Korean missile reached an altitude of 550 km, higher than the 500-km range of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor. The Aegis interceptor may also have not been in the right place, as the missile passed over a region that is not a routine training area.

Why didn’t South Korea try to shoot it down? South Korea’s US-made Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) system reports a 100% test rate, but it has never been used in combat.

THAAD is also designed to shoot down missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere during their terminal phase. The North Korean missile was only in range during its first two phases: boost and midcourse.

Military and diplomatic challenges

Kim Jong Un smiles during inspection of North Korean missile site
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, at the test launch of a Hwasong-12 IRBM in Pyongyang, August 29, 2017.

What can be done about future missile tests?

In order to shoot down a missile during its boost phase, a ship with an SM-3 would have to be right next to the launch site and intercept immediately upon launch.

As the US military has noted, boost-phase intercepts are quite unlikely due to the challenges in anticipating a launch and the decision process needed to approve such a response. For fighter jets to intercept a missile in that phase, the jets would need to be at a provocatively close distance to the launch site.

None of the missile defenses in Japan or South Korea – which include US-made Patriot missile systems – can intercept missiles during their midcourse phase.

South Korea could technically develop a midcourse defense in the future, but past pushback from China indicates there will be a substantial challenge to doing so. Seoul suffered as much as $7 billion in economic losses when China boycotted Korean products in response to the deployment of the THAAD system.

With nearly one-quarter of South Korea’s exports and one-fifth of Japan’s exports going to China, safely navigating the US-China rivalry while ensuring a defense against North Korean missiles will be a complex military and diplomatic task.

Jessup Jong is a Korean Army veteran (Intelligence Branch at the Transportation Command) and a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is “Human Suffering in North Korea.”

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Democrats take aim at the US’s new $264 billion ICBM amid search for cash to boost the military

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM is launched during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, August 2, 2017.

  • The Biden administration’s 2022 budget has sparked new debate about military funding.
  • The GBSD, a replacement for the US’s current ICBM’s, has attracted particular scrutiny.
  • Pausing the GBSD could save $37 billion “without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Rep. John Garamendi told Insider.
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Amid debates over how much funding the US military needs to counter China and Russia, Democratic lawmakers have taken aim at a major new nuclear weapon, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, to pay for other priorities.

“It’s a matter of how we’re going to spend a very precious resource called money,” Rep. John Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee, told Insider in an interview Thursday.

The GBSD, work on which began during the Obama administration, will replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, which has been in service since the 1970s.

Cost estimates for the GBSD are close to $100 billion for acquisition and $264 billion over its lifetime, which is set to run to the mid-2070s. Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion contract for the weapon in September.

The GBSD is set for its first flight in 2023 and to hit initial operational capability in 2029, with all 400 of the new missiles deployed by 2036.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base ICBM missile silo Wyoming
A US airman gives a tour of ICBM training facilities on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, July 22, 2012.

GBSD proponents say the Minuteman’s service life can’t be extended, but Garamendi has said Air Force officials “confirmed” it could and has argued for a GBSD pause until the mid-2030s.

“That is exactly what the Air Force is going to do with most of the Minuteman IIIs that are presently in the silos. They will be life-extended for the next 15 to 20 years as the GBSD is replacing the Minuteman III,” said Garamendi, who also sits on the subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons.

With that pause, over the next 10 years “some $37 billion could be saved and used for other purposes without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Garamendi added, citing estimates from a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report.

That money could be spent on other priorities, such as more warships, new weapons like hypersonic missiles, as well as artificial-intelligence and cyber capabilities, Garamendi said.

Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, and other officials have said developing the GBSD would save $38 billion compared to extending the Minuteman III through 2075.

Garamendi called that a “fallacious argument,” citing estimates that showed life-extensions were cheaper over shorter periods, such as the CBO’s 15-year estimate, which are “the time horizon in which all of us are living.”

“To draw a conclusion based upon the cost 55 years from now is a stretch,” Garamendi said.

‘The hawks want it all’

icbm missile silo
A missile silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, July 17, 2007.

Progressive activists and lawmakers have also called to pause or halt the GBSD.

Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill in March to redirect GBSD funding to COVID-19 vaccine research. (A similar measure from Khanna was voted down by the House Armed Services Committee in 2020.)

Former defense officials, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, have argued ICBMs are unnecessary for deterrence and also raise the risks of a nuclear war.

Current military leaders and Democratic and Republican lawmakers say it’s necessary to maintain all three legs of the nuclear triad: ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-launched weapons.

Asked by Garamendi at a hearing this month about pausing the GBSD to save $37 billion, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “would not recommend taking that money away and putting it elsewhere.”

“The recapitalization of the entire triad, to include the GBSD, is critical to our nation’s security,” Milley said, adding that with a delay of 12 to 15 years, “you’ll have a gap in the land-based leg.”

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A Minuteman III missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 28, 1971.

At a press conference Thursday, Republican Sen. Jodi Ernst said the US “cannot trade” a GBSD pause for additional funds.

“For too long and many administrations, we were not as focused as we should have been on those modernization efforts, and it has set us much further behind than we should be,” Ernst said. “If we delay for a dozen years, it would be extremely hard to catch back up. If we look at Russia, China, Iran’s activities and what they want to do with enrichment, we can’t afford that.”

Garamendi countered that a Minuteman extension was already part the GBSD plan, that the older missile will remain a deterrent, and that work done on the GBSD “would be available to carry forward.”

“The delivery systems are not standing still. They’re rapidly changing, and it may very well be that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, the ICBM in silo is not the deterrent that we would count on” Garamendi said.

The Biden administration’s 2022 Defense Department budget invests $2.6 billion in the GBSD, up from $1.5 billion in the Trump administration’s 2021 budget.

Progressives have criticized Biden’s $715 billion request for the Pentagon in 2022, a slight increase over 2021, as too big. (Moderate Democrats called it “strong and sensible.”) Republicans have criticized it for not meeting the 3% to 5% annual increase that military leaders and others have recommended.

“They are increasing spending everywhere on everything, with one exception,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said of Biden’s overall budget at the press conference Thursday. “That’s the big message we’re sending. The prioritization of our military with this budget is last.”

Minuteman III ICBM warhead nose cone
Airmen mount a refurbished nuclear warhead on a Minuteman III in a silo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, April 15, 1997.

“There’s no doubt that the hawks want it all,” Garamendi said, adding that Biden’s budget “chose to keep the GDSB in place, but they also made very, very hard choices, which are going to be very difficult for the [House Armed Services] committee to accept.”

While work on the GBSD has begun, its future may depend on the Biden administration’s ongoing nuclear posture review.

Garamendi noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to commit to the GBSD when asked about it at the hearing with Milley, saying that the “right balance” of forces would be informed by the ongoing nuclear posture review.

“He said that twice,” Garamendi said. “I’m sure he was honest, and I want to believe that he was honest that, in fact, the issue of the GBSD is under consideration – that is, a pause on the GBSD – so we’ll see.”

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Biden is signing onto Trump’s trillion-dollar plans for new nuclear weapons

Biden
President Joe Biden in an electric Ford F-150 lightning at the Ford Dearborn Development Center in Michigan, May 18, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden’s first defense budget, totalling $752.9 billion, continues a Trump effort to “modernize” US nuclear forces.
  • That modernization could cost upward of $1.5 trillion over 15 years, and Biden’s plan will only add to simmering debate about whether the US needs those nukes.
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For those anticipating a significant shift in national priorities in the wake of the huge increase in defense expenditures during the last administration – to the tune of some $100 billion over four years – President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 national defense budget is a major disappointment.

On Friday, the Biden administration submitted its fiscal year 2022 budget request – with a whopping $752.9 billion set aside for national defense, $715 billion of which is designated for the Pentagon. The proposed funding actually increases defense expenditures by some $11 billion from the Trump years.

Congressman Mark Pocan and Congresswoman Barbara Lee called the Biden defense budget “a failure that doesn’t reflect this country’s actual needs.” The joint Pocan-Lee statement, released last Friday, slammed Biden’s proposal, pointing out that “the defense spending increase” by itself is “1.5 times larger than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s entire $8.7 billion budget.”

Defense hawks, on the other hand, were as outspoken in their criticism, arguing that the Biden defense budget does not account for inflation, which means that, to keep pace, Pentagon spending should be ramped up to the tune of 3% to 5% annually.

“President Biden’s defense budget request is wholly inadequate – it’s nowhere near enough to give our service members the resources, equipment and training they need,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla), and his House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala), said in a statement. “It’s disingenuous to call this request an increase because it doesn’t even keep up with inflation – it’s a cut.”

Air Force Vandenberg Minuteman ICBM test
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, February 5, 2020.

The opposing positions are likely to be a source of contention in the weeks ahead, as Congress hammers out the details of who gets what.

Most disappointing for progressives is the Biden administration’s apparent endorsement of the Trump administration’s decision to spend big in “modernizing” America’s nuclear forces – a decision that could cost the nation upwards of $1.5 trillion over the next 15 years and as much as $634 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Congressional progressives describe the amount as a wholly unnecessary and extravagant expenditure. As an example, the Biden budget reflects a White House decision to double the amount the nation will spend on developing and deploying the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to a proposed $2.6 billion from $1.4 billion.

The monies do not include upgrades to launch facility locations and nuclear laboratories, which would cost tens of billions more. The GBSD is intended to replace the 50-year-old Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile – the ICBM.

While the $2.6 billion figure might seem modest compared to the bulk of defense expenditures, the GBSD serves as a template for the nuclear modernization program (accounting for $27.7 billion in the Biden budget), while committing the United States to maintaining the nuclear triad – the three-legged mix of missile-launched, submarine-launched and bomber-launched nuclear weapons.

In total, an upgrade of the Minuteman III could cost upwards of $264 billion over the period of its development and deployment. Then, too, in addition to the funding for the increasingly controversial GBSD, the Biden defense budget includes expenditures for a new Columbia-class submarine, further development and deployment of the B-21 bomber, and a long-range standoff weapon.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base ICBM missile silo Wyoming
An airman gives a tour of ICBM training facilities on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, July 22, 2012.

In the weeks preceding then ew budget’s release, Congressional progressives and their allies among anti-nuke NGOs had been gearing up for a fight over nuclear modernization, arguing that land-based nuclear missiles pose the most destabilizing part of the US arsenal – and that part of the triad that is most susceptible to an accidental launch.

These advocates argue that spending for the GBSD is unnecessary since the Minuteman III can be regularly upgraded over the next 10 years without adopting the budget-busting numbers proposed by the Trump administration.

That thinking is in line with a series of options detailed in an intriguing study by the Congressional Budget Office that would cut back the number of delivery systems and nuclear warheads over a period of 10 years – saving tens of billions of dollars – but without any erosion in nuclear deterrence.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of those likely to lead the charge against the nuclear modernization program, particularly given her focus on it during the Senate’s February confirmation hearings for Dr. Kathleen Hicks to be deputy secretary of defense.

“I know that you believe in a safe, and secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent, but we’re going to spend $44.5 billion on nuclear weapons this year, which is more than the entire budget for the State Department and foreign operations accounts,” Warren said to Hicks back in February. “Will you commit that your review will not simply be a rubber stamp of our current nuclear strategy, but that you really will examine and re-question the core assumptions that underpin it?”

Hicks assured Warren that she would. “Absolutely, senator,” she responded.

Now, in the wake of President Biden’s seeming endorsement of a large portion of the previous administration’s nuclear modernization program, that reassurance is very much in doubt, despite Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s public testimony last week before a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that the Biden team will be conducting its own review in the months ahead.

icbm missile silo
A missile silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base, July 17, 2007.

In all of this, there is a sense that both the White House and Pentagon are attempting to downplay just how similar the Biden administration’s defense budget is to the most recent defense budget proposed by Donald Trump.

The strategy included a last-minute postponement of the budget’s release until late in the day on the Friday before Memorial Day (“not an accident,” as one senior Pentagon civilian told Responsible Statecraft).

It was a purposeful soft-pedaling of the dollar amount for defense in comparison with other administration priorities and heavy-handed public statements that emphasized Biden’s commitment to “innovation,” “advanced capability enablers,” and “cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technologies” (like microelectronics, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, machine learning, 5G networking).

It was a purposeful, if transparent, sleight-of-hand, as if the Biden team wasn’t actually committed to buying weapons, but rather to a “visionary” and “forward-leaning posture,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described it.

Few, it seems, were fooled: “At a time when the greatest challenges to human lives and livelihoods stem from threats like pandemics and climate change, sustaining Pentagon spending at over three quarters of a trillion dollars a year is both bad budgeting and bad security policy,” the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung said.

Hartung’s criticism will be echoed in the weeks ahead, as the Biden defense budget becomes an increasing focus for a badly divided Congress.

While there’s much for both the left and the right to attack, the Biden administration’s seeming unwillingness to take on the nuclear weapons lobby will likely mark the most contentious issue for both sides. It will be round one of a Congressional donnybrook over whether the United States is protected by buying, building and fielding more nuclear weapons – or placed at increasing risk.

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US Air Force aborts the planned test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile for unexplained reasons

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, August 2, 2017.

  • The US Air Force had to abort a planned test launch of one of its Minuteman III ICBMs.
  • The service said a “ground abort” was experienced prior to launch but didn’t go into specifics.
  • The abort comes amid a debate about the nuclear modernization and the future of the ICBM force.
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The US Air Force aborted the planned test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement Wednesday.

The launch was scheduled for sometime between 12:15 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. Pacific Time on Wednesday morning at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but it “experienced a ground abort prior to launch,” the Air Force said.

The service did not go into detail on the specifics, only noting in its brief statement that “the cause of the ground abort is currently under investigation” and that Global Strike Command is “assessing the potential to reschedule the launch.”

The US military’s roughly 400 silo-based LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs are the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad, which also includes nuclear-capable bombers and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.

The Air Force conducts regular test launches to ensure that weapons, respective launch systems, and related personnel remain reliable should the US find itself in a nuclear crisis.

Problems during the testing are rare, but they do happen. In 2018, for example, the US military was forced to terminate an unarmed ICBM in flight after an anomaly created an “unsafe flight condition.”

The latest issue, whatever it may be, comes amid a debate over efforts to modernize America’s ICBM force, an expensive endeavor that has received some pushback from progressive politicians and arms control advocates.

The US military, in partnership with major defense contractor Northrop Grumman, aims to replace the existing intercontinental ballistic missiles with new ICBMs under the Ground-Based Strategic Defense (GBSD) program, which could have a total cost of several hundred billion dollars.

Minuteman ICBMs have been in service since the early 1960s, and US military leaders argue that without modernization, the US runs the risk of its missiles eventually not working at all.

Adm. Charles Richard, who currently leads US Strategic Command, told lawmakers in April that he “cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever,” arguing that the ICBM force is past the point of upgrade and needs to be replaced.

Given the lack of clarity surrounding the unexpected abort of Wednesday’s test launch, it is unclear what impact, if any, this could have on the ongoing debate surrounding nuclear modernization efforts and the future of the ICBM force.

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Top nuclear commander says he will push to put bombers back on alert if US gets rid of its ICBMs

B-52H Stratofortresses from the 2nd Bomb Wing line up on the runway as part of a readiness exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
B-52H bombers on the runway during a readiness exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

  • The head of STRATCOM said he would put bombers on alert if the ICBM leg of the triad goes away.
  • His comments come as some in Congress question the need for nuclear modernization spending.
  • The STRATCOM commander says he needs a modern ICBM force, not “leftovers of the Cold War.”
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America’s top nuclear commander told lawmakers Tuesday that he would push to put US nuclear-capable bombers on alert if the military lost its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As some lawmakers question the need to invest in nuclear modernization programs like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a replacement for the aging Minuteman III ICBM force, the head of US Strategic Command is arguing in favor of moving forward with the modernization plans and against cutting the ICBM force.

STRATCOM commander Adm. Charles Richard has argued previously that a failure to modernize and replace what the US has now is essentially disarmament in the face of a growing threat. Russia has its own nuclear triad, and China is developing a functional triad.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Richard said that if the ICBM leg of the US nuclear triad were to be abandoned, then the bomber force would have to take its place as an always-ready nuclear deterrent.

“What is not often recognized is that we don’t have a triad day-to-day,” Richard said. “The bombers are not available to us. We chose to take them off alert as a type of peace dividend after the Cold War. Day-to-day, what you have is basically a dyad.”

The three legs of the US nuclear triad are the silo-based ICBMs, ballistic-missile submarines, and bombers, all of which are overseen by STRATCOM. All are options, but only the submarines and the ICBMs are ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Richard argued that the “basic design criteria in the triad is that you cannot allow a failure of any one leg of the triad to prevent you from being able to do everything the president has ordered you to do.”

“If you don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles, we can’t meet that criteria,” the admiral said, adding, “You are completely dependent on the submarine leg, and I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions I would request to re-alert the bombers.”

Richard stressed Tuesday that without funding for programs like the GBSD – the research and development of which is expected to cost more than $85 billion, with a total life-cycle cost in the hundreds of billions – the US runs the risk of its ICBMs eventually “not working at all.” He said that he simply “cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever.”

Putting the strategic bomber force back on alert, meaning loaded and ready for an immediate nuclear strike should the order come, would be a return to practices that were common decades ago during the Cold War.

The idea of putting bombers back on alert has come up before, though not in the context of a potential loss of a leg of the nuclear triad.

In 2017, Defense One reported that the Air Force was preparing to put the nuclear bombers back on 24-hour alert. That change, however, was never actually made.

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