Loren Thompson - GMD: The Only Program That Can Stop A North Korean Nuclear Warhead From Reaching America

Nuclear weapons are the worst military threat that America faces. A single 500-kiloton warhead exploded over a major U.S. city would destroy or heavily damage all buildings to a radius of three miles, and cause widespread fires to a radius of six miles. Electric grids and other fragile infrastructure would fail for tens of miles in every direction. If it was a big city like New York or L.A., prompt and delayed fatalities would likely exceed a million people. Radiation would render much of the damaged area uninhabitable for years.

Russia has hundreds of such warheads in its arsenal, which is why the U.S. must maintain a secure retaliatory force to deter Moscow from contemplating nuclear aggression. The thinking is that if Russian leaders know their aggression will result in unacceptable damage to their own homeland, they will be dissuaded from attacking. Unfortunately, there are some nuclear threats that can't be deterred, such as an accidental launch, a grave mistake in the midst of crisis, or an irrational adversary.

Which brings us to the subject of North Korea. Kim Jong Un, the latest leader of Pyongyang's hereditary dictatorship, has made little secret of the fact that he is pouring resources into acquiring ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland with nuclear warheads. North Korean television highlighted Kim's plan earlier this week, displaying a picture of the White House in targeting cross-hairs. This is standard fare for the North's media, but all signs point to the conclusion that Kim soon will be able to carry out his threat.

North Korea parades long-range missiles earlier this month. Kim Jong Un has made little secret of his intentions. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea parades long-range missiles earlier this month. Kim Jong Un has made little secret of his intentions. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

Nobody in Washington knows whether Kim can be deterred by the kind of strategy America has long applied to Russia and China. So whatever other military steps the Trump administration may elect to take, it is obvious the American homeland needs to be defended against a North Korean attack. At present, there is only one program capable of doing that. It is called Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), and its interceptors in Alaska and California were deployed mainly with North Korea in mind.

The system can actually intercept ballistic warheads approaching the U.S. from any direction, but it's North Korea and maybe someday Iran that have policymakers most concerned.  They think they understand what is needed is deter nuclear aggression by Moscow and Beijing. Kim Jong Un is another matter -- bellicose, unpredictable and dangerous in the worst possible way. The theocrats who rule Tehran may one day pose the same sort of threat, although for now their nuclear capability is mostly aspirational.

Given the severity of the danger that Kim poses, you might think Washington would be pouring money into GMD. After all, it is the only program the Pentagon has that can stop an intercontinental ballistic missile's warhead once it is launched. The reality, however, is that the Obama administration's last military budget -- for the current fiscal year -- requested a grand total of $1 billion for GMD. That's about what Washington spends every two hours. More to the point, it's less than 1% of the cost the U.S. economy would incur if a single North Korean warhead detonated over a major American city.

It's hard to grasp what the Obama administration's thought process was concerning defense of the U.S. homeland against nuclear-missile attack. Even though Pyongyang's drive for nuclear capabilities was well known from the start of the administration, Obama's advisors shifted the emphasis in missile defense away from homeland security to protecting regional allies. They canceled a plan to equip the Navy's warships with interceptors that could shoot down intercontinental-range warheads, and for a while seemed intent on starving GMD.

Obama eventually was forced to change course when Pyongyang became too threatening to ignore. In 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the number of GMD interceptor-missiles deployed on the West Coast would be increased from 30 to 44. That number should be reached this year. The administration also elected to upgrade the kill vehicle on the interceptors, and make various refinements to the radars that track incoming warheads (Boeing and Raytheon, the two biggest players in the program, contribute to my think tank).

Relative to the threat, though, Ground-based Midcourse Defense is receiving a pittance. The U.S. spends more money in a typical year defending Iraq than it has since 9-11 on the only program capable of intercepting a nuclear warhead aimed at the American homeland. This isn't just about North Korea. What if there is a breakdown in the Russian chain of command or a mechanical malfunction, and a missile is launched accidentally?  GMD is the only system we have to intercept that threat too.

President Trump appears committed to realigning military priorities with an eye to putting more emphasis on homeland defense. The day he was inaugurated, the White House posted a policy statement on its web-site endorsing "a state-of-the-art missile defense system" that could protect the U.S. against attacks from Iran and North Korea. The president reiterated that support in a national security memorandum on January 27, calling for a Ballistic Missile Defense Review that would identify ways of "rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities."

This may well be the most important defense initiative that the Trump Administration undertakes, because no military challenge poses a greater danger to American democracy than the threat of nuclear attack. As a first step, the White House should consider thickening the number of GMD interceptors at existing sites while following the recommendation of Senator John McCain to build a third site on the East Coast to enhance defense of cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

At the very least, steps should be taken to accelerate the modernization of interceptors, kill vehicles, radars and communications links in the existing GMD system. This would cost a few hours of federal spending at most. The consequences of being under-prepared on the day Kim Jong Un makes good on his threats could be horrendous for our citizens and our civilization. There is no sense in remaining so ill-prepared when our adversaries have made clear the danger that is approaching.