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Missile Flop: Norks in Tight Spot

by david_axe on July 6, 2006

The New York Times and others are framing North Korea’s busted missile test as a major problem for the U.S. — especially with China and Russia refusing to take a hard line against Pyongyang, for now. “President Bush and his national security advisers found themselves on Wednesday facing what one close aide described as an array of ‘familiar bad choices,’” the Times said.
143ADA.jpgThat seems a little upside-down to me. Isn’t Kim Jong-il the one with the bad choices here, now that his supposedly-intercontinental missile flopped less than a minute into its flight?
“Over these past few years, [Kim] has adroitly played his otherwise miserable hand because of two cards that everyone believes he holdsnuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Yesterday’s dud raises the possibility that the missile card’s a bluff, that there may be (as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland) ‘no there there,’” says Slate’s Fred Kaplan.
“Seems to me their ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] capability has gone no better than sideways the past eight years, if not down,” retired Adm. Dennis Blair, a former chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, tells the Washington Post.
“Less threatening, because less capable,” agreed Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), who tracks North Korea.
At the same time, South Korea — which had been keeping the U.S. at arm’s length — is now drawing us in a little closer. Reunification talks with the Norks will continue. But the South is now looking to put some of our short– and intermediate-range anti-missile systems into place. Seoul’s “Defense Ministry… announced it plans to introduce 48 Patriot missiles between 2008 and 2009,” according to the Chosun Ilbo. “After 2009, it will introduce SM-2 Block-IV sea-to-air interceptor missiles to be carried on Aegis ships to counter the North Korean missile threat.“
lat_nork_graphic.jpgJapan, meanwhile, is barring North Korea ships and flights — after agreeing to install new missile interceptors of its own, last month.
So: allies better defended, and adversaries shown to be weak. That’s all good news, right?
UPDATE 11:14 AM: Unlike Phil Coyle, William Arkin thinks the American warning system did a good job of picking up on those Nork launches.

Within seconds of North Korean rocket engines igniting on their launch pads, infrared cameras aboard Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites detected the heat and transmitted an alert back to U.S. command centers in Colorado Springs, where the trajectory was calculated and the type of missile determined.
Those U.S. infrared satellites had been primed for over a month by activity at the launch sites, intelligence sources say. Movement was detected by spy satellites and U-2s, signals were intercepted by NSA. North Korea even reportedly issued a standard public “notice to mariners” announcing a military exercise and missile test.

UPDATE 11:39 AM: Plus, the Missile Defense Agency has to be psyched that it didn’t have to fire off its ICBM interceptors, since they haven’t been successfully tested in nearly four years. “The apparent failure of a North Korean long-range missile gives the Pentagon some breathing room as it prepares two critical tests for a U.S. missile shield,” the Wall Street Journal notes.

To bolster military and political confidence in the shield, the Pentagon next month plans to launch an interceptor missile in California to counter a mock enemy missile fired from Alaska. The primary goal of the trial isn’t to destroy the dummy warhead, said Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. Instead, it is to test the shield’s command-and-control system and ensure that a key radar system tracks the warhead and transmits information to the interceptor.
Later this year, the agency plans a so-called hit-to-kill test that will aim to destroy a dummy warhead. Pentagon officials say the two tests, which will cost between $85 million and $100 million each, make 2006 the key year for validating the missile-shield concept. “We believe that we have demonstrated that the hit-to-kill technology works. What we’re going to do is try to show that we can do it reliably and that we can sustain it,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in an interview earlier this year.

UPDATE 1:49 PM: One other nice thing about the North Korean launch is that it gives the U.S. military a whole lot of data about a missile it didn’t know much about before. Thanks, Kim!

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