Ashton Carter, North Korea and Missile Defense | Commentary

Posted December 9, 2014 at 5:17pm

Ashton Carter, the nominee to serve as the next secretary of Defense, recently generated headlines for his past suggestions on how to deal with North Korean missile threats.

Carter, along with Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Perry called for a surgical strike on North Korea in a 2006 op-ed to mitigate their missile threat. The merits of a pre-emptive strike versus other means of countering the North Korean missile proliferation are issues that are debated to this day. However, the rationale behind their recommendation — that North Korea is a threat to Americans at home and overseas that should be taken seriously — is not.

Airborne threats to the American homeland and our troops overseas continue to grow in the Asia-Pacific region. Intelligence estimates indicate that the North Korean government may already have nuclear-capable ballistic missiles with a range of up to 6,200 miles, enough to hit Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the western continental United States.

While Carter, in previous policy statements, called for strikes to counter the North Korean missile program, he overlooks a much less controversial way to mitigate airborne threats from the Hermit Kingdom — missile defense. Instead of risking American lives at home and abroad and sparking armed combat, the United States military can employ systems such as Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance (TPY-2) radar, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and the Patriot Missile, among others, to diminish these growing threats.

One of the most effective ways to mute North Korean nuclear ICBM saber rattling is through employing GMD, the only protection against long-range ballistic missile attacks on the American homeland.

As North Korea continues to develop missiles with greater range and accuracy, it is crucial we expand our ability to protect against these threats. Necessary steps include: adding an additional 14 interceptors at the two West Coast sites and funding improvements to the current kill vehicle while simultaneously researching the next-generation common kill vehicle.

Congress should see that the $700 million the Missile Defense Agency wants to commit to improving the current kill vehicle over the next five years is appropriated and the additional interceptors are constructed.

American territories in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Guam which is home to both a strategic U.S. Navy and Air Force base, are also increasingly under threat from North Korean missiles. Last year, when it appeared a North Korean missile with a range of reaching Guam would be test launched, a THAAD launcher, paired with an AN/TPY-2 radar, was rushed to territory to counter the imminent threat.

Unfortunately, the military does not currently have an adequate number of these systems in its arsenal to protect against all of the missile threats that currently exist. Only 12 of the 18 TPY-2 radars military planners deemed necessary to adequately protect the homeland have been funded and military commanders are currently requesting a seventh THAAD battery to successfully counter the increase of short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats. Congress should fully fund combatant commanders’ requests for both systems.

In the past, North Korea has used its ballistic missile program to try and intimidate the international community into accepting unlawful missile tests. This was the case in 2009, when America, Japan and South Korea voiced concerns regarding an Unha-2 rocket test and North Korea responded by placing their military on high alert. The first line of defense for the over 78,000 American warfighters stationed in these two allied countries was the Patriot Missile.

Modular and highly mobile, the Patriot Missile is the system of choice of the U.S. Army to protect soldiers from enemy missile fire. Since the first Gulf War, the Patriot Missile has played a crucial role in defending United States soldiers and allies.

Due to the demonstrated contributions Patriot has made towards national defense for over three decades, combatant commanders are requesting upgrades that will keep the system in place through at least 2048.

Despite the success of the program, some in Congress are seeking to cut modernization funding for Patriot, against the advice of military leadership. The motivations for the proposed funding cuts are unclear, but the consequences are evident; delayed modernization and warfighters left vulnerable to enemy attacks.

Congress should heed the advice of the military command and provide the funding necessary for Patriot Missile modernization.

In the conclusion of their piece, Carter and Perry say that Americans will remain in danger from North Korean missiles “until the U.S. takes the danger seriously and gets in the game.” One hopes that the president in making this nomination, and Congress should they approve the nomination, will heed this advice and be sure to protect America from the North Korean missile threat by fully funding missile defense.

Travis Korson is the communications director with Frontiers of Freedom, a think tank with a mission of providing a strong national defense.