How We'd Shoot Down a North Korean Missile

Within seconds of a North Korean missile launch, the United States would detect, track and determine whether it posed a real threat to U.S. territory or that of our allies.  

If the missile poses a real threat, the Obama administration would have to decide — in seconds, and in real time — whether to shoot the missile down.  If that decision is made, this is how it would be done.

The launch of a long-range missile by North Korea against the United States would trigger the activation of radars, sensors, battle management software and rockets — all acting in a computerized sequence to intercept the warhead at up to 200 miles above the Earth before it reached its target and killed thousands of Americans.

With bellicose North Korea bent on developing three-stage rockets tipped with nuclear warheads, how the U.S.  military can stop an attack was never more important to the country’s security. When people ask what has a $110 billion investment in missile defense over 25 years brought the country, the Pentagon would answer: prevention of a nuclear nightmare from North Korea, Iran or other rogues.

The missile defense gadgetry would kick in once the missile or missiles launched from North Korea. Defense Support Program satellites detect the rocket motor’s heat and relay the data to the Missile Defense Integration Operations Center in Colorado Springs as well as North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and an operations unit at Fort Greely, Alaska.

"Everything is automated for the most part," said Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.

At this point, the center needs three radars to do their jobs: an X-band radar on the northern coast of Japan; and two early-warning phased-array radars back in the states — one in Alaska, one in California. X-band radars emit a concentrated beam able to pinpoint a target’s specifications; phased array send out a broader wave to surveil a wider area.

Those three radars get help with the most powerful X-Band radar in the world: the floating SBX that can be deployed around the Pacific Ocean. It now sits near Hawaii, ordered there after intelligence reports said North Korea may launch a ballistic missile at the islands.

The SBX’s powerful beam can focus on the warhead an discriminate it from counter-measures designed to fool an intercepting missile as well as from the pieces of rocket motors and other "junk’ that flies along side. It is so powerful it could float in the Chesapeake Bay and spot a softball-size object across the country over Seattle.

The U.S. currently does not have a system that can shoot down a missile in its early boost phase. The MDA has tested the Navy’s shipboard Standard missile for that task, but it is not ready. Lehner said the system was successfully tested twice against a missile in its ascent phase, which is higher than the boost phase.

The objective is to smash warhead in mid-course as it travels at super-speed up to 200 miles above the earth.

Once the missile starts burning off each stage, the work of the early-warning radars becomes crucial. They supply data to battle management computers which begin mapping an "intercept solution" — the warhead’s speed, altitude and direction. Then it creates the "battle space’ — where in space the intercept will occur.

All this information is poured into three-stage ground-based interceptors in silos at Fort Greely and Vandenberg air base, California. The number of interceptors launched is classified, but it would be more than one per warhead. The Pentagon plans 30 interceptors in all; for now it has 16 at Greely and three at Vandenberg.

Shed of its rocket stages, the 155-pound interceptor, or kill vehicle, is now flying through space to the programed point of collision. Its own sensors and rocket motors allow it to adjust course, as it closes in on its quarry at 15,000 miles per hour.

"It takes over discrimination and steering in what is called the ‘end game’ or final few minutes before the collision,"   Lehner said.

At impact, the nuclear warhead is smashed to dust particles that float harmlessly in space.

Northern Command has one last chance at destroying the warhead if the space collision fails. A developing system called THADD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is designed to attack a warhead in its final two-minutes in flight, just as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The command would have to position THADD relatively close to where the enemy warhead is falling.

Will the space intercept work? The missile agency says 8 of 13 tests showed that it will. Only one interceptor totally missed. The other four experienced technical problems

What’s more, by the end of the year, Northern Command will be able to rely on two new satellite prototypes called the space tracking and surveillance system. Once called "brilliant eyes,"  in the hey day of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the satellites will augment the ground radars with additional tracking data.

Gen. James Cartwright, Joint Chiefs vice chairman, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June there is a "90 percent-plus" likelihood of shooting down a North Korean long range warhead.

Air Force Gen. Victor E. "Gene" Renuart, Northcom commander, told The Washington Times this month that "[t]he nation has a very, very credible ballistic-missile defense capability. Our ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California, I’m very comfortable, give me a capability that if we really are threatened by a long-range ICBM that I’ve got high confidence that I could interdict that flight before it caused huge damage to any U.S. territory."

Why worry? North Korea has set off two nuclear devices in the past three years. Cartwright said that within three years the regime may be able to modernize its Taepodong 2 missile so it can reach the West Coast.