OPINION: Best strategy against North Korea: Boosting missile defense

There is wide and bipartisan agreement that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a grave threat to the United States and our allies.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called it an “imminent” threat. His predecessor John Kerry said North Korea’s nuclear program would be one of the top challenges for the new administration.

But naming the problem is easy – especially when unpredictable leaders like Kim Jong-Un can’t stop bragging about his regime’s progress while threatening attacks on the west.

All paths forward have their challenges. Pre-emptive military action could lead to wider conflict while offering no real guarantee of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Negotiation without verifiable assurances does not remove the threat, and is further complicated by the complex overlay of Sino-American relations. Which means immediately boosting funding for the centerpiece of our homeland missile defense, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), is the best path forward.

To borrow (and flip) a phrase, sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Most military strategists and political leaders agree that strengthening our ability to defeat a North Korean missile attack makes sense – both to deter Pyongyang’s leaders and neutralize the threat from this rogue regime’s weapons of mass destruction.

As our only system capable of defending the entire United States – including Alaska and Hawaii – from such attack, GMD provides us with an advantage.

This multilayered, global system is made up of space-based satellites that detect enemy launches, sea- and land-based radars that track enemy missiles into the edge of space, command and control systems in Colorado Springs, and ultimately interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greeley in Alaska that launch from their silos and destroy the incoming missile before it reaches our shores.

As one of the most complex programs ever developed, this Boeing-built system has assets spread across 15 time zones connected by more than 20,000 miles of fiber-optic cable. If hitting a bullet with a bullet sounds hard, hitting a nuclear warhead traveling through space at around 4 miles per second sounds nearly impossible. But GMD has proven capable of doing just that, successfully shooting down live target missiles in 10 separate tests.

The latest success, which happened on May 30, showed once again how far the system has progressed. It was a milestone for the program as it was the 10th successful intercept, the most complex and real-world test, and more importantly, the first time the system has been tested against an ICBM. Previous tests had used smaller missiles to replicate the threat. And while those tests provided invaluable data to help perfect the system, the most recent test proved GMD is on the right path as the kill vehicle “completely obliterated” the simulated nuclear warhead in the words of Vice Admiral James Syring, the Missile Defense Agency Director who retired after the successful test.

The test showed the world it can defend the United States against missiles more technically advanced than anything in North Korea’s current arsenal.

Adm. William Gortney (ret.) is a retired U.S. Navy Admiral and the former commander of the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

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