Last month I proposed what was clearly a provocative idea as the United States wrestles with the problem of North Korea and their diminutive dictator’s growing collection of nuclear toys. What if, I wondered, we were to use our missile defense system to shoot down one of Kim Jong-un’s ICBM’s the next time he fires a test shot over Japan? Others have suggested it in the past but it always seems to be dismissed as a needlessly risky idea. It would certainly be seen as a provocation in the face of a madman by some, but it seems as if Rocket Man (my new favorite name for the plump despot) doesn’t really respect anything but a show of force.
I received more than a little feedback via social media and email from that one, with many people making perfectly rational points against such a course of action. Others were a bit more blunt, simply calling me crazy. But perhaps it’s not quite as nuts as you thought because now I’m clearly not the only one talking about it. Most recently it was suggested by our own military, probably coming straight from Mad Dog Mattis and/or other leaders in the Pentagon. (CNN)
As tensions continue to ratchet up with North Korea, CNN has learned that the US is considering shooting down a North Korean ballistic missile even if it does not directly threaten the US or its allies.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said North Korea is “intentionally doing provocations that seem to press against the envelope for just how far can they push without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable.”
An official directly familiar with options planning within the Trump administration told CNN the question that now needs to be answered is whether North Korea’s missile program has progressed to the level of being such an inherent threat that the Pentagon would recommend targeting a missile even if its trajectory did not indicate it would hit the US or its allies. The official declined to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
As with the last time this came up, there are two significant concerns over this, neither of which may be a complete disqualifier. (Okay, there are more than two, but these seem to be the most pressing.) First of all, would this qualify as an act of war? If so, that opens the door to the idea of Kim having some cover to launch a counterattack on South Korea and God only knows who else. If North Korea starts the war by firing off a nuke at someone we’ll have pretty much global support for taking him out entirely, but if our adversaries can make the claim that we started it an already horribly complicated situation grows even more so.
The second concern is the question of whether or not our missile defense would actually work. Investors.com had a good summary of our current capabilities last month and while we’re doing much better than before this isn’t a sure thing. Patriot missiles are only good when the incoming threat is almost on top of you. (Not desirable in a nuclear exchange when the ICBM may have multiple warheads.) THAAD and AEGIS are really only designed to handle short to medium range missiles. That means we’d be relying on our Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. But that’s only succeeded in live fire tests ten out of the last 18 times, and many of those were sitting duck scenarios where the time of launch, speed and trajectory were already known in advance. In a live response scenario, will our GMD systems do the trick?
Therein lies the rub. If we do shoot down one of Kim’s ICBMs it’s an impressive show of force and a reminder that he probably couldn’t hit us anyway. The attack would be futile and followed by his annihilation in a bloody and catastrophic but probably fairly short war. But if we miss we’ve got egg on our faces and Kim has the bragging rights to continue his nuclear program full speed ahead.
It’s a tough call.