Can US Actually Shoot Down a Nuke?

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When North Korea test-fired its latest medium-range ballistic missile last month, the Pentagon was bold in its response: if the missile had been pointed at the United States, Japan, South Korea or any of our other allies, we would have taken it down.

“We maintain abilities to be able to respond quickly and intercept missiles from North Korea if they do pose a threat to us or our allies,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told the press. The Missile Defense Agency stood behind that assertion, saying they were “confident in the system.”

Of course, the public is less convinced. Critics continue to question the capability of our missile shield—a $180 billion multi-layered investment from the Pentagon. And with tensions growing between the unpredictable country and ourselves, the question of whether or not we could really thwart an attack from North Korea is top of mind.

Currently, the U.S. breaks its missile defense into three phases: boost (on the way up), mid-course (in space), and terminal (on the way down). The moment a missile was launched at Japan, it would become a target for a U.S. Navy destroying equipped to counter intermediate range missiles.

This method has raised eyebrows in the past, with some comparing it to trying to hit a “bullet with a bullet.” But it regained creditability last month when USS Paul Jones successfully shot down a target missile off the coast of Hawaii. The test was a collaboration between the U.S. and Japan.

If South Korea was targeted instead, the U.S. would employ “terminal” defenses.” Lately, we’ve been pushing to move a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile battery to the Korean peninsula. China strongly opposes the deployment, uneasy with the fact that THAAD uses a missile-tracking radar that can see into Chinese territory. South Korea, on the other hand, has already acquired land for the system.

And finally, if North Korea decided to target the U.S., commanders would turn to the 36 interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California—along with radars and sensors linked to control systems. Admittedly, “the flight-testing record isn’t where we’d like it to be,” the director of the Missile Defense Agency said. But so far the failures have been easy to address.

So, would these efforts be successful? Joe Cirincione, president of the arms control group Ploughshares, is doubtful.

“We have zero evidence that this system could actually work,” he says. That’s not entirely true. Since 2001, the Missile Defense Agency has had 75 successful intercept attempts out of 92.

Many analysts have also asserted that it is “not clear” whether North Korea actually has the technology to accurately launch a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile to travel through all three phases of flight toward a target.

One thing is not up for debate: North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat and should be a priority.


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