Two Clinton DoD hands, Ashton Carter and William Perry, say that firing our missile defense system if North Korea tests its Taepodong-2 missile, as the Wall Street Journal and National Review have called for, is not enough: We should be prepared to stop the test from even taking place by bombing the launchpad.
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.
Carter and Perry’s plan, as they go on to acknowledge, has the drawback that it could trigger Korean War II. They argue that this risk can be minimized if we make our intentions clear beforehand, emphasize that South Korea has nothing to do with the attack, and be visably prepare to defeat the North if they do attack the South.
In my view, the answer depends on the odds of success (and at least some of the information needed to make the right decision is classified). A successful missile defense shot would be a major coup; the demonstration that we can’t be threatened with ICBMs, coupled with ongoing progress toward providing missile defense to our allies worldwide, would discourage missile proliferation everywhere. Would Pyongyang even bother to go forward with construction of a long-range missile arsenal if they knew that the arsenal couldn’t work in practice? On the other hand, Carter and Perry are right that a failed intercept attempt would undermine the deterrent value of our missile defense (and the WSJ editoral suggesting otherwise rings false).