With the unveiling of North Korea’s latest, and most powerful, intercontinental ballistic missile to date, the Hwasong-15, experts now seem convinced that Kim’s regime possesses the ability to at least reach targets as far away as America’s east coast.  Although questions remain as to the platform’s ability to survive reentry, as well as the targeting apparatus North Korea employs in their long-range missile platforms, a looming concern persists: could the United States actually shoot down a barrage of nuclear tipped missiles coming our way?

If you ask those within the Trump administration, the answer is an unequivocal yes.  The three layers of protection afforded to us by the U.S. military, comprised of Aegis destroyers, Thaad launchers, and the U.S. based GMD system, offer three opportunities to identify, target, and intercept offensive launches well before they reach American shores.  However, if each of these platforms performs as well as advertised, one might ask, why do we need to rely on three?  Redundancy is, of course, an integral part of security, but ultimately, shouldn’t just one or two layers of defensive security suffice for such low-tech threats?

The thing is, reality is often a lot more complicated than it seems, and just like every Twitter user with terms like “sheep dog” in their bio is convinced the United States would make short work of destroying Kim’s North Korean regime, America’s claims regarding its missile defense platforms are a little too simplistic to be taken at face value.  America does indeed possess some of the most advanced anti-missile technology on the planet, but the sheer complexity of the task they’re assigned means there’s still a significant margin for error.

In late November, Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital.  The Saudis spotted the inbound missile and fired a bevy of five interceptors from the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 system they purchased from the United States, and, as luck would have it, the missile’s warhead failed to reach its destination at the airport.  President Trump announced that it was because the interceptors had caught up with the inbound launch and ended the threat, but new evidence suggests that it was luck, not American hardware, the kept the airport safe.

It appears that one of the interceptors did make contact with a portion of the missile that had already been discarded by the warhead along its flight path.  It then detonated not far from the airport, likely as a result of a failure in its guidance system, rather than the five interceptors launched at it.

“Our system knocked the missile out of the air,” President Donald Trump said of the incident. “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.”

He’s not wrong about that last part – currently there are fourteen nations on the list of states that are paying handsomely to deploy American anti-missile systems, Saudi Arabia and Japan included.

“You shoot five times at this missile and they all miss? That’s shocking,” Laura Grego, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The New York Times. “That’s shocking because this system is supposed to work.”

Most interceptors rely on Kinetic energy to destroy the missile. In other words, they need to make direct contact with the inbound target to be successful. (Lockheed)

America’s homeland defense system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, has also been plagued with failures during testing, resulting in a standard procedure of launching multiple interceptors at any single inbound missile just to ensure one of them might actually do the trick.  This practice poses significant issues, however, if ever there were multiple warheads inbound simultaneously, as the GMD system would rapidly find itself overwhelmed by the need to launch as many as five interceptors at each individual inbound missile.  These problems have been identified, and potentially addressed, with new interceptors reportedly offering a higher degree of reliability – however, due to budgetary constraints, the majority of the GMD interceptors remain the outdated (and unreliable) early design.

“What is the point of using tests to identify problems if you don’t fix those problems afterwards?” said Grego, months ago.  She was also one of the physicists who also led an in-depth study of the GMD that was published last year. “At some point you have to decide if you mean to build something that works or something that simply looks like it works.”

Shooting down an inbound missile, which has commonly been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet somewhere in low earth orbit, is just so complex a challenge, even our best technology still can’t guarantee success in a real combat scenario.  Kim’s Hwasong-15 may not be technologically capable of destroying cities like America’s capital quite yet, but as it stands, it doesn’t appear that the United States could guarantee that we could stop them if they tried.

As it stands, we may need to hope we’re just as lucky as that Saudi airport.


Image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense