Could Alaska's missile defense system stop an attack from North Korea?

Published: Jul. 6, 2017 at 5:43 PM AKDT
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The technology of missile defense isn't easy, and despite recent success, some are questioning the reliability and technical capability of the United States limited intercontinental ballistic missile defense program.

The ground-based mid course system has been tested a total of 18 times in the last 12 to 15 years. Although defense officials at the Missile Defense Agency are confident in the system's ability to protect the country, so far, only 10 out of the 18 tests have been successful.

"The testing record to date has not demonstrated that this system provides a reliable capability to defend Alaska or the rest of the United States," said Kingston Reif, missile defense expert and Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. "It's had a troubled history and the overall test record is just over 50%."

The most recent test took place May 30 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. So far the system is one-for-one against ICBM's, but Reif says the test wasn't realistic.

"The intercept test of this system against a target missile with a dummy warhead, was tested in a very strict and controlled conditions. Meaning the realism of the test scenario is limited," Reif said. "That's a test against one interceptor fired against one target missile. In a real scenario it's unlikely North Korea would fire one missile at Alaska or at the rest of the United States, and so this system has never been tested against more than one target at the same time."

In a real world situation, Philip Coyle, co-author of "The Challenges of Nuclear Non-Proliferation" and board member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says to compensate for the systems poor scorecard, in order to get a hit, the shot doctrine says anywhere from 3 to 5 interceptors would be fired at each incoming ICBM. He says the number of interceptors would quickly be exhausted if a nation like North Korea fired more than one missile.

Currently the United States limited ICBM defense system consists of 36 operational ground based interceptors. Four are located in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and 32 are in Alaska at Fort Greely, with another 8 on the way by the end of 2017, and even more beyond 2017, if the National Defense Authorization Act is approved as is.

About a week ago, the NDAA, which funds the U.S. military, passed out of the Senate Defense Committee. Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan says one of his amendments to the bill includes an increase of 28 ground-based missile interceptors, 14 would be deployed in Alaska.

Following news of North Korea's successful launch on Monday, Sullivan sent this message out on Facebook. "Now more than ever, it's imperative for Alaskans and the rest of the nation that we be prepared. That's why I recently introduced a bill - the majority of which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act passed out of committee last week - that will significantly boost our missile defense capabilities and keep America safe."

But missile defense experts Philip Coyle and Kingston Reif disagree with Senator Sullivan's choice to spend money to boost missile defense.

"Expanding the existing system which continues to have reliability concerns, and technical concerns, is not a winning strategy to stay ahead of the North Korea threat," said Reif. "In this case quantity is not a substitute for quality."

The first interceptors were deployed at Fort Greely in 2004, each costs about $70 million.

Reif says the Pentagon is in the process of developing a new reliable kill vehicle, which would sit atop the interceptor. Defense officials say a kill vehicle is object which tracks, maneuvers and intercepts a warhead in space. Reif says the new kill vehicle won't be tested until 2020, with deployment scheduled for 2022.