Another recent ballistic missile test by Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime ended in failure over the weekend, prompting another round of headlines poking fun at the reclusive state’s inability to make meaningful progress in building a missile with a high probability of success. Although it seems likely enough that the floundering economy and educational isolation that characterizes the nation in the global theater would result in a good deal of difficulty in producing such a complex weapon system, another theory has begun to surface.
Unsubstantiated reports keep popping up all around the internet that suggest the United States may have somehow managed to cause the failure in Sunday’s medium range ballistic missile test that may have been intended as a proof of concept for a submarine launchable platform. Is there any evidence to support such a claim? Not really – but there is, to a certain extent, precedent.
The United States has long been aware that, despite developing some of the most advanced anti-missile technology on the planet, shooting down missiles is a losing game. Even the THAAD missile defense system that China has been so upset about the U.S. deploying in South Korea couldn’t actually hope to stop an all-out nuclear assault levied by the small nation – the fact of the matter is, with enough missiles in the air, no one could hope to shoot them all down.
As SOFREP has reported before, the missile defense system tasked with protecting the mainland United States has some serious issues and no real plans to remedy them any time soon. The GMD missile system we use relies on launching our own missiles into orbit that are designed to eject a “kill vehicle” that hunts down and destroys a nuke before it re-enters the atmosphere over the U.S. – but repeated failures in testing have forced us to plan on firing four to five GMD missiles at any one missile launched our way in order to effectively engage it – meaning if there are more than a dozen or so missiles headed toward the United States, it would be effectively impossible to stop them all.
Overseas, platforms like the THAAD and systems based on Naval vessels can similarly target and engage launched ballistic missiles, but again, the volume of missiles many state-actors could volley at once would see these defenses as more of a nuisance than a prevention – as they too would expend all of their ammunition without putting a significant dent in the rain of ICBMs headed toward wherever. In effect, our missile defenses only work if a handful or fewer missiles are launched at once – and no matter how many advanced defense systems we develop and deploy, our enemies will continue to build more missiles. Ultimately, it’s easier to build more missiles than it is to build the things that shoot them down – we know it, and our enemies do too.
Which brings us back to the internet’s wacky accusations of the U.S. somehow “hacking” North Korean missile platforms, causing their repeated failures, setting back their program, and possibly helping to slow Kim Jong Un’s progress toward becoming a card-carrying member of the Nuclear ICBM club.
Back in 2009 and 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was met with repeated setbacks, notably, mechanical failures in the centrifuges in their nuclear facilities kept failing. According to records, they were forced to replace their centrifuges specifically more than a thousand times in that two-year span – and it appears to have been the result of a computer virus intentionally released into their nuclear facilities’ systems.
Months later, the Iranian government brought in a computer security firm from Belarus to help address unrelated issues with computers shutting down and powering back up sporadically. In the course of their efforts, they happened across files that led them to the Stuxnet virus – the world’s first (discovered) digital weapon.
Of course, Iran maintains digital security at their facility by keeping it out of the web’s reach – with no internet or phone lines connected to the systems they rely on to handle the enrichment process. This means the virus had to be hand delivered to the facility, likely via removable hard drive like a USB Thumb Drive, and possibly, without the carrier even being aware that they had it with them.
In 2010, Duqu, a similar but even more capable virus, was discovered by staffers at Symantec – they believe it was likely made by the same people as Stuxnet, and that whoever it was likely had the assets and resources of a state level program.
“To build the first nuclear bomb, it took a genius like Oppenheimer and the resources of the Manhattan project. To copy the design, it requires just a bunch of engineers — no genius needed.” Ralph Langner, the German computer security specialist credited with discovering Stuxnet, wrote on his blog upon the discovery of Duqu. He’s right – once a first virus of this type made its way into the world, it became reverse-engineerable. Viruses of this sort can now be replicated and modified by any number of bodies for any number of reasons – and this is just one example.
Because we’re aware that we couldn’t possibly shoot every missile out of the sky, the world could potentially volley our way, it does make sense that the United States would be making a digital, as well as diplomatic, effort to reduce North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
So is there any truth to the idea that the United States somehow hacked North Korea’s missiles? It doesn’t seem very plausible. North Korea, though behind the times, is almost certainly aware of the dangers of having their missile platforms digitally connected to the outside world. Just about every missile platform is designed to use an “air barrier” or gap between the missile and its systems and internet-connected computers for just this reason. That means effecting these missiles would require a physical connection – such as from a thumb drive.
Many viruses can be designed to hitchhike in that sort of storage device, remaining dormant until it comes across the particular type of software it was designed to engage – meaning a contractor or employee could potentially have unknowingly “muled” such a virus into the North Korean missile system – but based on the lack of connectivity enjoyed by the North Korean people… it seems less likely than in other nations where contractors might want to check their email on their lunch break.
Of course, that doesn’t make it impossible – just highly unlikely.
Image courtesy of KCNA