US missile defense test triggers alarm in Russia, China as North Korea issues new warnings

Key Points
  • The U.S. sets new interceptor missile tests and looks to deploy laser weapons to destroy ICBMs.
  • Beijing is worried America's anti-missile system 'breaks strategic balance among nuke-armed countries.'
  • Moscow is critical of U.S. missile defenses and mulling how to respond.
US missile defense agency takes out ballistic missile in live-fire test
US missile defense agency takes out ballistic missile in live-fire test

The Pentagon's successful interceptor missile defense test this week is seen as a step toward reducing the nuclear risk from North Korea, but now China and Russia are seeing the U.S. technology as a threat.

Regardless, North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said Thursday that its military was "ready to conduct an ICBM test-fire at any time."

During Tuesday's test, the U.S. military intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile target fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during a test of its Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, system.

Besides California, the U.S. also has the GMD system deployed at Fort Greely in Alaska. The interceptor test took place a day after the North Korean regime fired its ninth ballistic missile test this year.

Tuesday was only the 10th successful test out of 17 conducted since 1999. This week's test also was the first live-fire test against a simulated ICBM target.

The test is seen as a sign the U.S. military is making progress to combat the mainland U.S. threat from North Korea. Still, the use of numerous decoy missiles or countermeasures by an enemy could overwhelm or confuse the interceptor system and render it useless.

Russia and China already have developed countermeasures to increase the chance of a missile reaching a target. And the North Koreans also are believed to be developing similar capabilities, which creates additional national security concerns given Pyongyang's rapid advances in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

'Many different ways'

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Friday quoted a military spokesman for the hermit state as saying the U.S. is "sadly mistaken if they think such missile interception system can prevent the shower of [a] nuclear strike."

"There are many different ways that a missile can trick an interceptor," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think-tank based in Washington founded by former President Richard Nixon.

There's an expectation that U.S. adversaries will intensify efforts to counter the GMD and other missile defense technology. Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted as much Thursday

"This destroys the strategic balance in the world," Reuters quoted Putin as saying in remarks at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Added the Russian leader: "What is happening is a very serious and alarming process. In Alaska, and now in South Korea, elements of the anti-missile defense system are emerging. Should we just stand idly by and watch this? Of course not. We are thinking about how to respond to these challenges. This is a challenge for us."

At the same time, China's semiofficial Global Times said this week that the interceptor test is proof the U.S. may be preparing for military action against North Korea and also that the technology "breaks strategic balance among nuke-armed countries."

They believe they were put in a situation where they are going to have to counter [U.S. weapons], and that's the age-old story of military capability.
Ed Turzanski
national security expert

"The enhancement of America's missile defense capability will, in theory, undermine the effectiveness [and] efficacy of nuclear strikes launched by its main strategic rivals, thus consolidating its own domination," according to an op-ed Thursday on the Chinese military's official web portal.

China believes the systems "will also stimulate other countries to develop strategic penetration technology at a faster pace or enhance their own strategic defense capability, which will exert a new impact on international security."

Russia's and China's first-strike capability and their response capability are "neutered" by the U.S. missile defense, according to Ed Turzanski, an international policy and national security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Philadelphia.

"They believe they were put in a situation where they are going to have to counter that, and that's the age-old story of military capability," he said.

Turzanski, who worked in the U.S. intelligence community in postings throughout Asia and Europe during the Reagan administration, noted that during the Cold War there was an agreement with the Soviet Union that limited the number of U.S. interceptor missiles on each side. That agreement ended when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

"We knew the minute you had the ability to knock my missile down, you had survivability and you could launch a first strike with impunity. We wouldn't tolerate it from them, they are not tolerating it from us."

Number of GMDs grow

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The U.S. hopes to have a total of 44 GMD interceptors available by the end of the calendar year, up from 36 today, but even with that amount there may not be enough interceptors to take out more than a dozen incoming ICBMs, according to experts. A group of senators last month introduced a bipartisan bill that seeks to bolster homeland missile defense and sharply increase the number of interceptors.

The next test of the GMD interceptor system is scheduled for late 2018, according to the Missile Defense Agency. Boeing is the prime contractor on the GMD program.

The U.S. missile agency has received more than $120 billion since 2002 on the GMD missile defense system and it plans to spend an additional $37 billion through 2021 to further develop capabilities, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last month.

Meantime, Russia and China also are concerned with the THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems deployed in South Korea. THAAD, a system manufactured by Lockheed Martin, stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

The controversial THAAD system is a mobile, ground-based system deployed about 130 miles south of Seoul, South Korea, to defeat North Korean missiles. However, its powerful radar gives the U.S. the ability to peer deep into both China and Russia and monitor military activities.

Analysts suggest one way Russia could respond to the U.S. anti-missile technology is by increasing its cyberweapons targeting missile defense systems as well as pushing more space-based anti-missile solutions. Russia also could increase the number of fake missiles it has coming down on targets so more interceptors go to the wrong missile.

"There are ways to trick the computer systems to think that there's a lot more missiles coming down on a target," said Kazianis. "The challenge here is that there's so many different ways to literally fake out the interceptor system."

At present, the U.S. is considered ahead of Russia and China in developing space-based sensors and interceptor technology. Infrared sensors already are on satellites to detect missiles and the Pentagon is expanding efforts to develop a network of additional sensors in space and to experiment with kill capabilities from space.

Laser weapons also show promise as part of a missile defense system. They have already been tested in manned aircraft and now development is underway in drones.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency's "long-term goal is to deploy lasers on high-altitude, long-endurance UAV platforms to destroy ICBMs in the boost phase at long standoff ranges," according to spokesman Chris Johnson.

Several challenges remain, though, including overcoming the huge power requirements of laser weapons and the scale necessary to put the weapon technology on unmanned vehicles. General Atomics is working on a high-energy laser system for its UAVs that could be used for a range of uses, including missile defense as well as offensive capabilities.

"The challenge there is getting the laser powerful enough while also to be light enough to fit on the back of a UAV," said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank.

That said, Karako indicated that the laser-based UAV weapon would only be useful for the boost phase of a ballistic missile when it's most vulnerable and rising. The laser probably wouldn't be reliable to kill the missile warhead on its re-entry since at that phase it is designed to withstand intense heat.