Most countries try to hide their nuclear-weapons programs. When caught building a reactor, they claim it’s for electric power. They disguise missile tests as satellite launches. When they actually test a functional bomb, they argue it’s for self-defense.
Not North Korea, which just detonated its third and largest nuclear bomb and proudly acknowledges it is “targeted at the United States.” If that wasn’t clear enough, they reinforced the point with a propaganda video showing a North Korean soldier dreaming of nuclear missiles destroying an American city.
President Obama has condemned these provocations, and the United Nations will consider yet more sanctions. Yet we’ve obviously reached the limits of diplomacy with “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un. These severe provocations should meet a more serious defense, something we have the tools and capability to do if shortsighted politics and congressional gridlock don’t get in the way.
In the face of unpredictable actors, our only sure protection against a nuclear attack is missile defense, a technology that the United States has pioneered over the past decade. Our ground-based midcourse defense system protects the American homeland, using radars and other sensors placed around the world to track incoming missiles and destroy them with relatively simple “hit to kill” interceptors that literally knock them out of the sky. Many doubted the technology could work, but eight successful intercepts have won over skeptics such as former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Moreover, it costs just one-five-hundredth (0.2 percent) of the defense budget — a pittance for peace of mind.
Yet budget sequestration cuts that took effect this month could weaken our missile shield at this critical moment. The sequestration takes a huge bite out of our military — 16 percent off every line in the 2013 budget. What’s worse, it leaves our commanders no choice about where to cut, so even the most important programs such as nuclear defenses can’t be spared. Even within the missile-defense budget, it’s not clear that we can direct cuts away from high priorities such as protecting American cities, or limit them to lesser ones, such as subsidies for European defense. In fact, currently we spend four times as much to protect Europe as we do the United States.
Sequestration or additional budget cuts could slow the placement of interceptors in Alaska and California, halt efforts to improve the coordination of far-flung radars and sensors, and delay testing that would prove the system’s ability to thwart countermeasures such as decoy missiles or cooling systems that can hide an ICBM’s heat signature. They could postpone the construction of an East Coast interceptor site that was recommended by the National Academy of Sciences as the most cost-effective defense against an Iranian attack.
Sequestration could even cut our nuclear arsenal — the deterrent that has kept the peace since the dawn of the Cold War by making clear that an attack on the United States is akin to holding a gun to one’s own head. Yet some in Washington reportedly plan to cut deterrent forces, turning our back on the tried and true in support of an untested and misguided belief that this will spur others to follow suit.
Does anyone think that Kim Jong-un would cut back his arsenal if we cut back ours? Or that the rest of the world won’t attempt to fill the vacuum left where American resolve once was, if only for their own security?
Whatever we do, North Korea will continue improving its nuclear-missile technologies — testing smaller and more powerful bombs, refining longer-range ICBMs and designing new countermeasures to try and trick our defenses. They’ve shown that money is no object, even at the expense of their civilian population. Last year, the starving nation spent $1.3 billion on missile research alone, out of a total gross domestic product of only $40 billion.
Meanwhile, all we need to do is modernize our nuclear deterrent and slowly improve our missile defenses — affordable, achievable goals if they are not sabotaged by a Pollyanna-style foreign policy or partisan budget gridlock.
It’s bad to overlook a threat or fail to connect intelligence “dots.” It’s inexcusable to ignore a danger that you see. On North Korea, that’s the choice we face.
Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, retired, is executive vice president at the Family Research Council and was an original member of the Army’s Delta Force.