The Trump administration’s national security strategy calls for a more aggressive approach toward stopping a North Korean missile strike on the U.S.: knocking the weapons out prior to launch.
But it’s unclear that the U.S. has the technology or on-the-ground intelligence to effectively carry out a preemptive strike in that kind of crisis situation. And if it fails, the result could be an even bloodier conflict.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, say there’s still time for diplomacy to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Tillerson has led what he calls a “peaceful pressure” campaign that relies on stepped-up sanctions while signaling a willingness to restart talks. He’s co-hosting a gathering of foreign ministers in Vancouver on Jan. 16 to discuss “security and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un extended both a warning and olive branch in a New Year’s Day speech, offering to hold talks with South Korea while also claiming his nuclear deterrent was “irreversible” and that it would prevent U.S. President Donald Trump from starting a war.
“It’s reality, not a threat, that the nuclear button is always on my desk,” Kim said. “The U.S. can never start a war against myself and our nation now.”
Trump’s national security strategy, unveiled in December, has options to turn to if diplomacy fails. It calls for a layered missile defense approach “focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland against missile attacks. This system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch.”
That would be more aggressive and challenging than so-called “boost phase” missile defense technologies intended to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles just after launch. U.S. systems, including the most advanced Aegis-class Navy cruisers and destroyers based in Japan, still don’t possess a proven capability of doing that, according to analysts and officials.
Trump’s proposal could include preemptive or “left of launch” options, such as lasers, special operations and long-range strikes with GPS-guided munitions as well as cyber attacks, said missile defense advocate and analyst Peter Huessy, president of Maryland-based GeoStrategic Analysis.
The strategy takes a page from former President George W. Bush’s controversial blueprint — elevating preemptive military strikes into national policy — that was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Senior administration officials who briefed reporters in December acknowledged the term “preemption” isn’t used in the formal document, but say the strategy makes clear the U.S. will defend its interests when threatened.
Just as the Bush administration’s justification for the preemptive invasion of Iraq was undercut by faulty intelligence, Trump’s strategy could face similar hurdles. That’s because “left of launch” depends on enhanced, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to detect and track mobile launch vehicles for attack, according to Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
North Korea’s rapid 2017 progress in developing ICBMs and nuclear weapons took most analysts by surprise, highlighting some of the existing intelligence shortfalls.
“The surveillance and reconnaissance side of the missile defeat equation is an important component to all this: you can’t intercept or strike prior to launch that which you don’t or can’t see,” said Thomas Karako, a missile defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave the Senate Armed Services Committee a reality check in July when he told lawmakers that North Korea has, over time, located much of its nuclear and missile capability underground, “which creates unique challenges.”
“There’s also some specific weather challenges in North Korea that limit our collection at various periods of time,” Dunford said. He added that competing demands for a limited amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance meant that “for a long period of time, we had decreased our collection against North Korea,” though he said that had changed over the past 18 months.
Mattis also said recently that despite North Korea’s most recent tests, its ICBMs have “not yet shown to be a capable threat” to the U.S. mainland.
To compensate for its shortfalls, the Pentagon is undertaking a “very serious and long-standing effort to improve the U.S. military’s ability to track mobile and relocatable targets,” but those efforts “are likely to produce middling results,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.
Advocates say the U.S. needs to pursue every possible option.
Threat to Seoul
It’s “imperative that we have the full range of missile defense and missile defeat capabilities available to decision-makers,” that’s “also rooted in our ability to respond in the manner and time of our choosing,” Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Alabama, who chairs the House Armed Services strategic subcommittee, said in an email.
Yet the most difficult part of weighing a preemptive strike of any kind is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime could quickly strike back with a barrage of artillery against Seoul, just 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of the border with North Korea, putting millions of lives at risk regardless of whether Pyongyang’s ICBMs are taken out.
Still, even missile defense opponents say there are advantages to some of the “left of launch” options if they can be deployed.
In a crisis, drones equipped with air-to-ground or air-to-air missiles could loiter near a suspected launch site, for example, said Joe Cirincione, president of the San Francisco-based Plowshares Fund, which seeks to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles.
Preemptive strikes options “could trigger a larger conflict, but each could be more reliable than current mid-course” U.S. ground-based interceptor systems, “which are easily defeated with simple countermeasures,” he said.
Asked for additional details to back up the preemptive strike strategy, an administration official pointed to Trump’s statement on missile defense from August, which said in part that the U.S. “will develop new surveillance and long-range strike capabilities to prevent our enemies from launching them in the first place.”
Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson said more details about this approach will be included in a ballistic missile review expected out in February.