Osan Air Base, Korea
North Korea is readying more missiles for launch as part of its long-term program to antagonize countries trying to rein in its nuclear and missile testing and its contraband exports of those technologies.
On the other side of the Pacific, U.S. Missile Defense Agency officials are preparing for the worst. They have conducted three tests of their nascent, layered missile shield against targets that simulate an engagement of a North Korean missile launch, says U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Chris Anzalone, director of testing for MDA.
Threats to stop and search North Korean ships for contraband have produced only threats of war and a faster pace of provocative acts. The latest predictions point to additional medium-range, Rodong-class missile firings from North Korea’s Anbyon base on the East Coast and a long-range missile (larger than the Taepodong-2) launch from Dongchangri on the northwest coast near the border with China.
U.S. officials contend that international agitation and the threat of conflict is North Korea’s only tool to promote the country’s relevance and that Pyongyang doesn’t want war. Any act of aggression, they contend, would be short-lived and directed almost immediately toward negotiations that would stop any allied retaliation and allow North Korea another forum for its misbehavior. Similar tactics were used during two years of negotiations to end the Korean War in 1954 with a ceasefire that North Korea now says is invalid.
In the U.S., MDA officials say they now have better sensor capability – and better integration of those sensors – to inform leaders if a threat launch is a test or an actual engagement. Though specifics haven’t been shared, this capability is notable because it allows U.S. officials more time to react in the event of an actual attack. One option now under discussion is the use of unmanned aerial systems to carry sensors – likely non-imaging infrared detectors – to cue other sensors of a launch. UAS could fly in close to targets and transmit data back to U.S. forces, and they could provide the ability to detect a launch under the clouds. Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) payloads now collect IR returns of boosting targets after they emerge from cloud cover.
The most recent test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in December included a target launch from Kodiak, Alaska, and an Orbital Boost Vehicle interceptor launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., to simulate the geometry that would be present in a North Korea threat launch.
Testers are growing increasingly frustrated by poor performance of target missile kill vehicles, specifically problems deploying countermeasures. This was the case in two tests last year. The next GMD test is expected this fall, and it will include a target launched from the Kwajalein Atoll.
With reporting by Amy Butler in Washington