That North Korean ballistic missile is still sitting on the pad. It’s a liquid fuel rocket; it can only sit on the pad for so long before it either has to launch or must be de-fueled. Removing the fuel is an expensive, complicated process, and not one the North Koreans are likely to have either the money or the expertise to carry out without getting some technicians killed.
I covered a space shuttle launch a few years ago, and weather became a factor in whether and when to launch. The “whether” part had NASA sweating very expensive bullets, as getting the fuel into the big liquid fuel tank that sits between the two smaller solid fuel boosters costs one large pile of dollars, and getting the fuel out if that became necessary would cost yet another large pile of dollars. And the process takes a long time and is somewhat dangerous–the liquid fuel tank is a gigantic bomb, more or less. NASA’s budget isn’t infinite; de-fueling would have cost some scientist somewhere his mission. Fortunately, de-fueling never became necessary, the shuttle Columbia went up (for its last complete mission to touchdown) and the Hubble Space Telescope got its new cameras installed.
That North Korean rocket has no such noble uses. It won’t expand anyone’s understanding of the cosmos, but its firing would expand North Korea’s knowledge of how to kill South Koreans, Japanese and Americans. It’s part test fire and part sabre rattle, meant to remind the world that’s pre-occupied with Iran and Iraq that Kim is still hanging around and capable of causing great trouble.
So what should we do about it? Try to shoot it down once fired, or kill it on the pad?
I’m finding myself in rare agreement with a couple of Clinton-era DoD officials: We should kill that missile on the pad.
Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. The multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive — the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea’s nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.
The U.S. military has announced that it has placed some of the new missile defense interceptors deployed in Alaska and California on alert. In theory, the antiballistic missile system might succeed in smashing into the Taepodong payload as it hurtled through space after the missile booster burned out. But waiting until North Korea’s ICBM is launched to interdict it is risky. First, by the time the payload was intercepted, North Korean engineers would already have obtained much of the precious flight test data they are seeking, which they could use to make a whole arsenal of missiles, hiding and protecting them from more U.S. strikes in the maze of tunnels they have dug throughout their mountainous country. Second, the U.S. defensive interceptor could reach the target only if it was flying on a test trajectory that took it into the range of the U.S. defense. Third, the U.S. system is unproven against North Korean missiles and has had an uneven record in its flight tests. A failed attempt at interception could undermine whatever deterrent value our missile defense may have.
All good, and the part about how shooting the missile down after North Korean engineers have learned what they wanted from the launch makes a great deal of sense. And taking that missile out before its launch would also remind a few would-be enemies that even while our ground forces may be occupied in Iraq, we can still take out a fixed target anywhere in the world if we believe it’s in our interests to do so. It would remind our allies that we’re really not all a bunch of Murthas, and we can be depended on to use our technology in the service of defending them against the likes of Kim.
So I say take that missile out.
Update: A couple of points worth noting. First, there’s no indication that I’ve seen that North Korea has miniaturized any nuclear weapon to the point that they can arm their Taeopodong-2 or any other missile with a nuke. The vehicle currently on the pad is a test fire and a threat in that its range is sufficient to hit Hawaii and Alaska. Second, Clinton-era officials have been entirely duplicitous on the Iraq war; many of them were hawks in the 1990s only to become doves once the actual shooting started (including Clinton himself, Gore, Albright, Berger and several others). The two quoted above, William Perry and Ashton Carter, display some of this Democrat duplicitousness in a passage flagged by Austin Bay:
The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of “preemption,” which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses. (The actual threat from Saddam Hussein was, we now know, even smaller than believed at the time of the invasion.) But intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.
Within one paragraph, they contradict themselves re preemption, or rather, they’re typical Democrats in the sense that they’re for it when they’re for it and against it when it’s politically easier to be against it in retrospect because things didn’t work out peachy. Advocating striking North Korea now is pretty much cost-free for them. If we don’t do it, the missile fires and our interceptors miss, they can say “We told you so.” If we don’t do it, the missile fires and we hit, they can say “But what about the telemetry?” and they’ll have a point. If we do hit the missile on the pad they can take credit, until things go south and at that point they’ll make a quiet exit. No one paid attention to them before this article appeared, and they’ll be forgotten along with Al Gore’s 2002 speeches praising President Bush and egging on war with Iraq. The media will never make them justify this article.
Nevertheless, I think they’re right to argue that that missile is too much of a threat to shrug off, and hitting it after it’s fired is too late given that its test purpose is to deliver data back to North Korean engineers, and it will have done that.
More: I respect all the fine folks at Blackfive, but I think this post has it exactly backwards. North Korea isn’t responding to President Bush’s success with Europe re Nork and Iranian nuke programs and asking for bi-lateral talks; rather, North Korea is using the missile as a means to force the US into bi-lateral talks over its nukes. That has been the North Korean goal for years–divide the US from its allies and from China and force us to deal with Pyongyang directly. President Bush is having none of that, and rightly so, since the North Koreans are still more of a threat to its neighbors than it is to us. And it would let China off the hook for its role in propping Kim up and keeping his cult intact enough to pursue nuclear weapons.
China remains the key to curbing Kim’s fantasies, and thus far China isn’t helping beyond the usual “We think everyone should calm down” platitudes.
Update: For what it’s worth, Newt Gingrich is in the “destroy the missile on the pad” camp:
The American public is being reassured that we have a ballistic-missile defense that will work. No serious person believes this. None of the tests have been robust enough or realistic enough to assure us that we could intercept the North Korean ICBM no matter where it was aimed.
In the immediate and present danger, the United States should not wait to attempt to shoot the missile down after it is launched. There is no proven reliable technology and no evidence that we could succeed. Instead, we should destroy the missile on its site before it is launched. Our ability to preempt the launch is nearly certain.
We can’t afford failure.