N orth Korea’s recent launch of several ballistic missiles including its long-range Taepodong-2 has predictably prompted calls for more aggressive U.S. pursuit of missile defenses, but it is far from clear what the nation could do that it is not already doing.
The United States already spends $8 billion to $9 billion annually on a wide variety of missile defense programs, which is about the limit given the state of the nation’s finances and the fact that there are numerous other threats that must be dealt with. The Missile Defense Agency has a full plate of challenging programs — to add new ones or expand deployment of systems before they can be proven effective in realistic attack scenarios is a recipe for waste.
Pyongyang’s outburst was outrageous, even when measured against past behavior by the Stalinist state. Certainly it validates the prudence of developing, testing and deploying missile defense capabilities.
At the same time, however, North Korea demonstrated that it has yet to master the technology of long-range missiles. Five of the six missiles fired off in a four-hour barrage July 5 — July 4 in the United States — were short- to medium-range Scud-type missiles. The three-stage Taepodong-2, which in theory may be capable of hitting parts of the United States, failed some 40 seconds into its flight and fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan.
This is not to say that North Korea doesn’t pose a threat today: Just ask Japan, which had a ringside seat for the fireworks display and which saw a Taepodong-1 missile launched over its territory in August 1998. Japan is taking measures in cooperation with the United States to address that threat, such as co-developing an advanced version of the Standard Missile-3 sea-based interceptor.
For its own territorial protection, the United States is deploying the as-yet unproven Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. The Missile Defense Agency also is spending hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to develop more-advanced systems and technologies such as lasers and a new breed of high-speed interceptor rockets.
In its operational configuration, the GMD interceptor vehicle made its first flight only in December, a test that did not involve engaging a target missile. In two previous test attempts, the rocket failed to get off the ground, prompting an embarrassed Missile Defense Agency to redouble its quality control efforts.
Countries like North Korea and Iran are problems, and missile defense can be part of the solution. But simply throwing more money at the Missile Defense Agency to rush new and unproven systems into the field is not the way to go. Instead, the Missile Defense Agency needs to devote its energies and resources into perfecting near-term systems like the GMD and Standard Missile-3 while continuing research into promising new technologies.