North Korea is ready to beta test NMD

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Forbes reports that the Bush Administration is considering responding to North Korea's impending missile test by trying to shoot down the missile.
The Bush administration is weighing responses to a possible North Korean missile test that include attempting to shoot it down in flight over the Pacific, defense officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Because North Korea is secretive about its missile operations, U.S. officials say they must consider the possibility that an anticipated test would turn out to be something else, such as a space launch or even an attack. Thus, the Pentagon is considering the possibility of attempting an interception, two defense officials said, even though it would be unprecedented and is not considered the likeliest scenario.

The officials agreed to discuss the matter only on condition of anonymity because of its political sensitivity.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not say whether the unproven multibillion-dollar U.S. anti-missile defense system might be used in the event of a North Korean missile launch. That system, which includes a handful of missiles that could be fired from Alaska and California, has had a spotty record in tests.

The first thing you need to know here is that although this is being pitched as the DPRK testing a missile that has "sufficient range to reach U.S. territory", what we're talking about is a Taep'o-dong 2 (TD-2), with a range of under 3000 miles according to FAS. It's about 3700 miles from Pyongyang to Anchorage (pop 260,000), so even Alaska is pushing things pretty substantially. We're not talking about the DPRK nuking LA here.

The second thing you need to know is that the US "missile shield" doesn't work in what you'd call a reliable kind of way, even in pretty favorable tests, and hasn't really been tested at all in situations where the missile isn't cooperating. Sure, we might hit some missile fired by North Korea, but it's not something you'd want to bet money on.

Now, obviously if we know that the DPRK has launched a missile that's intended to land in the US, then it's worth trying the defense system. Even if it doesn't work, what's there to lose. But based on my imperfect understanding of the technology and the news coverage, it appears that at the point where we have to make the decision, we can't tell enough about the targetting to know one way or the other.

Given that assumption, let's do the case analysis here. Either the DPRK is up to something more nefarious than a missile test or it's not. If they're not up to something nefarious and we don't try to intercept the missile, then they get to test their missile and the US look slightly weak. If we do try to intercept the missile and it works, then the US gets to look tough and it provides some deterrent against future ballistic missile attack. On the other hand, since single-missile attacks are stupid (more on this later), it's not much of a deterrent. On the other hand, if we try to intercept the missile and the defense system fails (which is the most likely case), the US looks stupid and it confirms what people already expected; that the missile defense system doesn't work.

Now consider the case where the DPRK is up to something nefarious. Maybe Kim Jong Il is afraid of grizzly bears or is pissed he never got to compete in the Iditarod. Anyway, they decide to attack Alaska. If we don't attempt to intercept the missile, it either works or it doesn't work (e.g., doesn't reach the US or misses or something). If it doesn't work but it's clear that they tried to attack us, we presumably attack the DPRK, which surely isn't something they think it's desirable. If it does work, we almost certainly attack the DPRK. Given that the DPRK has nukes and could attack us in a much simpler, effective, and most importantly deniable fashion by shipping a nuke into one of our ports, it's hard to see why they would take this particular tactic.

Finally, consider the cases where they're up to something nefarious and we do try to intercept. If it doesn't work, then we're back to the cases in the previous paragraph. If, on the other hand, by some miracle it works, then we've managed to save the land of the midnight sun. Congratulations!

Obviously, you can assign your own probabilities to these cases, but it seems to me that this decision requires weighing the very small chance of a good outcome (the chance that we're actually being attacked times the chance that the the system will work) against the very high chance of looking incredibly stupid if the system doesn't work.


The most practical and thus worrisome scenario in terms of an actual attack would be an EMP payload.

Is it possible that the U.S. could try to intercept the missile without anyone knowing? Then, if it worked, they could trumpet the results, and if it failed, it would be kept secret. I don't know what is involved with this anti-missile technology. If it's launched from a ship far out at sea it would be easier to get away with than if it's launched from a U.S. base somewhere.

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