Plugging U.S. Missile Defense Gaps


It would be a mistake to assume that we dodged a bullet with the fiery end to North Korea’s Unha-3 missile launch at the Dongchang-ri facility one minute into its fight. In fact, this was a test flight, and while missile engineers always hope for fully successful flights, they also understand that there’s plenty to be learned from failures as well. The reality is that however this launch ended, it portends an exponential advance in North Korea’s military arsenal. While compared to modern solid-fueled rockets the liquid-fueled Unha-3 may be operationally impractical as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, it provides a perfect test of the staging required for a long-range missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. North Korea’s missile provocation transcends mere reputational costs to the United States and its allies – it poses real military threats that must be addressed through defensive military means.

A brief précis about the North’s existing missile programs helps to understand why a putative satellite launch poses such danger. North Korea’s Taepodong 1 is a two-stage ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 2,000 kilometers for a 1,000 kilogram payload. Its first stage appears similar to the No Dong rocket, and its second stage is probably similar to the Hwasong-6 rocket (both derived from the Soviet “Scud” family of missiles). 

With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Taepodong 1 can notionally reach Japan and Taiwan. The Taepodong 2 is a two-stage ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 3,700 kilometers with a 1,000 kilogram payload. Its first stage is probably based on that of the Chinese Dongfeng 3 (CSS-2) rocket developed in the 1960s. The Taepodong 2 second stage may be identical to the first stage of the Taepodong 1 (i.e., the No Dong rocket). With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Taepodong 2 can reach Guam and Taiwan.

Although few technical details are known about the Unha-3, recent photographs suggest that its dimensions may be identical to those of the Unha 2, which is a three-stage missile with a maximum range of about 6,000 kilometers for a 1,000 kilogram payload and about 10,000 kilometers for a 500 kilogram payload.  Its first stage is similar to that of the Taepodong 2.  Its second stage appears to be similar to the Soviet R-26 missile, and its third stage appears to be similar to the second stage of the Iranian Safir-2 rocket. 

With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Unha-2 already can reach Guam and some locations in Alaska. Ominously, with a 500 kilogram payload, the Unha-2 can strike any location in Hawaii or Alaska, as well as the entire West Coast and most of the of the Northwestern United States (as far south and east as Colorado).

Because the trend lines are bad and the situation is getting worse, cutting food aid and pursuing U.N. Security Council resolutions are insufficient, even feeble, responses. They may provide some room for venting and thereby keep a lid on tensions, but they will do absolutely nothing to retard North Korea’s unrelenting ambition of building a long-range nuclear weapons program.   

North Korea’s missile exhibitionism has exposed serious tactical mistakes in United States policy, and a sober assessment of North Korea policy assumptions should therefore produce both a new strategic approach and strengthen the U.S. defensive posture in Northeast Asia.  

Tactical mistake number one is Washington’s fixation on the quixotic objective of persuading North Korea to negotiate away its limited plutonium stockpile sufficient for 6 to 10 weapons.  Coercive diplomacy works best when seeking limited goals, not one that threatens regime survival. However, we have persevered with a maximalist goal despite our lack of leverage or credibility when it comes to meting out punishment for noncompliance. 

March 22, 2013 at 21:33

I absolutely agree with the article. If N. Korea decides to launch a missle of any sorts again we should forwarn them that it will be shot down let them know their is a blanket of security and they can no longer simply launch missles out over the pacific.

[...] in mind. Upgrades for Japan’s missile defense system,according to the U.S., are all about the threat from North Korea and not about countering China. Nonetheless, Beijing senses, no doubt correctly, that [...]

John Chan
April 18, 2012 at 10:53

Why didn’t USA government do as you said? Are American ICBM fake stuff, because the MIC, the congress and the US government pocket all the money instead of actually building the ICBMs?

It seems American is a real paper tiger.

George Ronald Adkisson
April 18, 2012 at 03:19

If you lived somewhere else geographically…would the politicians charge you for their fear established there in Washington DC? My guess is they exclusively want every military item including drones to protect themselves first…my reasoning is due to the fact that uS politicians have bomb shelters and the general population of the uS currently does not.
It’s really interesting seeing the changes since police unions took over police forces across the country…In the 60′s, small communities like Harriman, Tennessee 37748 even had shelters for their school children.They did not take one federal taxed penny for their schools from the federal government’s pot either.They accomplished much more all by themselves.
Everyone enjoy the days…

April 17, 2012 at 20:05

Reverse MAD.

Simply launch an ICBM full of conventional explosive at the launch site.
What’s NK going to do. NK has the limited options. It can’t afford an out war with SK cause that will lead to regime change.

China won’t retaliate by sending by sending ICBM’s. Simply inform the Chinese an ICBM is currently traveling to NK. We intimidate two birds for the price of one.

April 17, 2012 at 13:21

Technology is advancing so rapidly, that gadgets are becoming smaller and more powerful – We even have a spy plane as small as 3 grams (source:

In the future, we will soon have smaller sized drones that have the capability to relay information to a master drone. Crashes, if any, will be minimized.

Kangmin Zheng
April 17, 2012 at 11:30

Agreed. CCP uses NK as a bargaining chip.

April 17, 2012 at 09:05

I find most of the points in this article troubling, others I find just plain silly.

First the NK ballistic missile test in 2009 made it about half way to Hawaii before failing. The most recent test barely made it over the water. That does not present a “worrying trendline” as the authors stated.

Also the Avenger interceptor idea is just silly. First, the speeds they cite would require a much larger missile for the range that would be needed. There is no way even a souped up Avenger could carry something like that, especially off the deck of a carrier. Second, I wonder how China would react to such a senario, with a bunch of “mega missile interceptor super drones” (a creation of the authors) buzzing around off their shores. This would push NK further into China’s arms and cause them to further deepen their military alliance against us, and China DOES have nuclear missiles that can reach the US.

I think these authors have watched too many bad 80′s action films.

April 17, 2012 at 05:13

Counter artillery fire was given to the North for the Yeongpyeong shelling however this fire was not accurate and there was zero reports of any casualties. The more lethal attack of the South Korean warship which killed 46 was never answered.

There is a big difference between simply returning fire while under attack and actually launching retaliatory attacks. Like a counter offensive is different from defending your position.

I’m not advocating a massive response but somekind of counter attack would be smart. The North would be forced into limiting their response because they know full well a full scale conflict would end in their demise. Therefore a calculated attack designed to embarrass the regime and deterr future attacks would be successful and would save allied lives and valuable diplomatic efforts in deterring acts of war.

Watching Ground Hog’s Day over and over again in North Korea’s provocations is just patheticly weak. My two cents.

Mark Gubrud
April 17, 2012 at 02:50

I doubt that a “Predator-type” drone would be able to carry the large missiles that would be needed for a boost-phase intercept. These would be large drones.

The drones would need refueling every 1 to 3 days. Aerial refueling is possible, but the drones would still need to be brought down for maintenance.

Drones regularly crash or stray off course. They are easy targets for ground, sea, or air-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Either a malfunctioning drone or an attack on a drone in disputed airspace could easily be misinterpreted by either side and lead to further escalation.

The answer to the challenge posed by North Korea is not to create an even more tense and unstable military confrontation at its borders. We may not be comfortable with their possession of credible means of deterrence. But we may have no better alternative than to get used to it. After all, this regime obviously values its own survival above everything else. Therefore it is unlikely to commit suicide, given a choice.

Mark Gubrud
April 17, 2012 at 02:35

The South Koreans did return fire in the Yeongpyeong shelling. The “rather nasty hammer” that would come down on North Korea in the event of a major attack by the North which compelled such a response would not prevent a similarly nasty hammer coming down on the people and cities of the South, which is why avoiding escalation is wise for all sides. There is little doubt that a major war launched by North Korean regime would end with its destruction, but much else (and many innocent people) would suffer as well.

April 17, 2012 at 02:33

The world has watched many greater atrocities and stood idly by. Sovereignty over human rights I believe.

April 17, 2012 at 02:09

If I remember correctly, South Korea responded to the North’s shelling of a border island with a barrage of their own.

April 17, 2012 at 01:23

@Matt: “The North Koreans are masters at bullying”
No. They’re just puppets. The (puppet) master is its huge neighbor.

April 16, 2012 at 23:14

“Any attempt by North Korea to attack South Korea or any nation it considers a threat would bring a rather nasty hammer down on the nut that is the Pyongyang regime.”

Then why wasn’t there some sort of retaliation for the attacks on the South Korean island and warship which killed 50 South Koreans?

I am unaware of a single retaliation in the long history of direct acts of war commited by the North. It is the classic case of a bully getting away with it because the victim is too scared of some “crazy reaction”. The North Koreans are masters at bullying, they must all learn this in order to survive in their own land.

The larger attrocity is the genocide commited on the North Koreans which has resulted in millions starved to death, tortured and killed. The North does not need any food aide…they have large reserves set aside for the military to use in an invasion of the South.

April 16, 2012 at 12:49

someone actually commented on this on

“….It is important to note that given the design of the rocket, it was never capable of being used as an ICBM. It’s maximum payload is simply too small. It would not be possible to redesign it for such a mission either, not to mention the fueling time required for such a liquid fueled rocket seriously impairs its use as a second strike delivery system. There’s a very good reason that modern ICBMs are solid fueled.

If, hypothetically, the US or the South Koreans did shoot it down, it would only increase tensions with one of the least predictable states in the world. I can’t see any self respecting politician authorising such an attack, even if UN resolution 1718 could be used as a legal basis. Can you even imagine how the Chinese would consider such an act, and so close to their shores? It would set a very, very bad precedent. Realistically, only shooting down debris could be tolerated.”

April 16, 2012 at 12:44

this is entirely speculation, and the reality is that while North Korea does have a large army and a nascent nuclear weapons program, both of them are no true threat to anyone save for South Korea. Any attempt by North Korea to attack South Korea or any nation it considers a threat would bring a rather nasty hammer down on the nut that is the Pyongyang regime. That the rocket was launched at all, whatever its purpose, amounts to more childish saber-rattling. On both sides.

April 16, 2012 at 10:04

It’s so patently obvious that the US downed/destroyed the Unha-3 rocket with a technology far beyond the YABL-1 Airborne Laser system the issue is not even in doubt. Based on the information we have, the rocket failed EXACTLY the way a theater ballistic missile would fail after being hit by a defense system designed to destroy rockets in the boost phase.

Does anyone REALLY believe the DF-21D missile would be allowed to be deployed without the US countering that “threat?” The US has been working on the issue and technology since Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program.

You guys are soo naive.


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