"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
News Analysis: Missile Defense Role Questioned

Wade Boese

Is the deployed U.S. anti-missile system capable enough to have a president rely on it to protect American lives if a hostile regime threatened to use long-range ballistic missiles to attack the United States? Some current administration officials say that President George W. Bush already did so during a similar crisis with North Korea in the summer of 2006. Others say such assertions exaggerate the risks faced in that incident and are intended to add luster to the administration’s controversial missile defense system, which was originally deployed in 2004 but remains unproven in the eyes of many, including some government experts.

Revisiting the Summer of 2006

In June 2006, North Korea placed its newest ballistic missile, the Taepo Dong-2, on a launch pad. The missile, which some estimated as capable of reaching the continental United States, never had been flight-tested, and its predecessor had been launched only once in a failed August 1998 attempt to put a small satellite in orbit. (See ACT, August/September 1998 .) Despite its apparent missile launch preparations, North Korea was observing a voluntary moratorium on flight-testing longer-range ballistic missiles that it had instituted in September 1999 and then extended indefinitely in a September 2002 bilateral agreement with Japan.

But Pyongyang also was unhappy with the suspended status of talks with Washington and other capitals on implementing a September 2005 agreement, which offered the Kim Jong Il regime economic and energy assistance in exchange for eliminating its nuclear programs, including any weapons that it might have built. (See ACT, October 2005 .) Meanwhile, the United States and its European allies recently had offered Iran new incentives intended to get it to end some of its nuclear activities, leading some observers to joke that North Korea was developing “Iran envy,” according to a former U.S. government official interviewed June 19 by Arms Control Today.

After weeks of speculation about North Korea’s motivations and whether it would launch the missile, the secretive regime July 4-5 fired six shorter-range missiles and the Taepo Dong-2. All the missiles, including the Taepo Dong-2, which failed approximately 40 seconds into its inaugural flight, landed harmlessly in the Sea of Japan.

Leading up to the tests, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States urged North Korea not to break its moratorium and warned that it would face penalties for defying them. The United States also let it be known that it was activating its ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system from a testing mode to operational readiness. That move put crews at Fort Greely, Alaska, on alert to fire, if ordered, the nine long-range ballistic missile interceptors based there. The Bush administration now deploys more than two dozen total GMD interceptors in Alaska and California.

Assessing the Missile Defense Move

Some Bush administration officials contend the decision to ready the GMD system was significant in freeing the president from having to contemplate trying to destroy the Taepo Dong-2 before it could be launched and escalating the situation.

In a March 11, 2008, briefing to reporters on U.S. anti-missile system efforts, John Rood, the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, revisited the June 2006 activation decision. He explained that because of the system, “we didn’t have to seriously consider options like pre-emption or overwhelming retaliation. We had a defense, and we were content to use that defense, and it was a way of not contributing to the crisis being larger.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England struck a similar chord during a March 31 speech to attendees of a Washington conference sponsored by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). He argued that missile defenses “allow our national leadership a choice beyond offensive actions,” noting that the North Korea case “was a prime example.” He said, “[W]e had no idea when [the Taepo Dong-2] was going to be launched and where they intended to fly it. It was possible that it could have reached U.S. territory.”

A month later at an April 30 hearing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the director of the MDA, used the same episode to describe the capability of the GMD system. He stated that the system “was good enough that when the North Koreans stacked their Taepo Dong-2 in the summer of 2006, the president was relying on [the system] as opposed to taking the advice of some…former senior officials to pre-emptively strike that site.”

The officials in question were former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Ashton Carter, former assistant secretary of defense. They had advocated in the June 22, 2006, Washington Post that the United States destroy the Taepo Dong-2 before it could be launched in order to prevent North Korean technicians from learning from the flight test and using that data to “perfect” an ICBM capability.

Unlike Perry and Carter, however, the more recent Bush administration statements obscure the broad perception at the time that North Korea, aside from seeking diplomatic leverage, might be preparing for a test, not an attack. Bush officials imply that the risk of an attack was sufficient enough that, without the GMD system, the president would have had to consider using military force to prevent the launch. The Department of State, including Rood’s office; the National Security Council; and the MDA did not respond to Arms Control Today questions seeking clarification of the recent statements.

Charles Pritchard, a former envoy to negotiations with North Korea who left the State Department in August 2003, thinks current Bush officials have been “hyping the situation greatly.” In a June 5 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he wrote there was “no credible evidence or the slightest suggestion that North Korea was about to attack” the United States.

Noting that, in the summer of 2006, North Korea had yet to demonstrate a nuclear weapons capability—something it would later do in October 2006 with a widely condemned nuclear blast—Pritchard contended that “it made no sense technically or politically for North Korea to do something that would have invited massive retaliation.” Adding that he did not recall any reports of North Korea massing its troops at that time, he asked, “What kind of country attacks a superpower with a single missile that contains no [weapons of mass destruction] and has no follow-on plan to deal with the consequences?”

Public statements by Bush administration officials at the time suggest that they too saw the North Korean activities as test preparations. For instance, Vice President Dick Cheney said in a June 22 interview with CNN that the possible launch would be “the first test of this particular [missile] type.” Although stating that the missile’s payload was uncertain, Cheney seemed to downplay the danger by observing that North Korea’s missile capabilities were “fairly rudimentary” and that past North Korean test flights “haven’t been notably successful.”

Congressional sources interviewed by Arms Control Today said they did not recall any sense that a missile attack was likely, but one noted that reading the reclusive Kim Jong Il’s intentions was problematic and might have led to some uncertainty about the situation. Nonetheless, that staffer shared the general perspective of another who June 5 said the Bush administration statements were “a lot of hooey meant to build confidence in the [GMD] interceptors.”

Is the Anti-Missile System Reliable?

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the subcommittee before which Obering testified on April 30, declined to comment to Arms Control Today on the nature of any information surrounding the June 2006 North Korean missile activities that “may have been the subject of classified intelligence briefings.” But in a June 11 statement, he observed that “components of the [GMD] system have yet to undergo successful realistic and operational testing such as would warrant full confidence against real-life threats should they be developed anytime soon.”

In the summer of 2006, the model of interceptors deployed in Alaska had not been successfully tested in intercept attempts, although prototypes had achieved five intercepts in eight experiments dating back to 1999. Since the summer of 2006, the interceptors have hit targets in two tests, while a third test was recently cancelled. (See ACT, June 2008 .) Still, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for Congress, reported in March that “the tests done to date have been developmental in nature, and do not provide sufficient realism for [the Pentagon’s] test and evaluation director to fully determine whether the [Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS)] is suitable and effective for battle.” The GMD system is the long-range element of the broader BMDS.

Despite the caveats and reservations of the GAO and the Pentagon’s own independent testing evaluator, Obering maintains confidence that the GMD system would protect against a long-range missile fired by Iran or North Korea if they were to acquire such a weapon. That optimism has spread to others. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at an April 1 hearing of the strategic forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee that missile defense had evolved “through some highly challenging technological problems to a day when the North Koreans rattle their missiles, we feel confident we can knock it down.”

In an interview aired April 25, 2007, with the ABC News Nightline program, Colonel Ted Hildreth, the commander of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion operating the interceptors in Alaska, said, “I’d bet my family’s life” on the system’s capability to knock out a missile. It is unclear whether the Bush administration was entrusting many families’ lives to the system two years ago or just making a bet that it figured would not be called.