President Donald Trump in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday night discussed the North Korean crisis and displayed what is perhaps a dangerous overconfidence in US missile defenses.
Asked about the threat North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose to the US, Trump said the issue should have been handled in previous administrations, and he praised China for its cooperation with a US-led push to impose sanctions against Pyongyang.
But Trump also seemed to put faith in a not-so-reliable element of the US’s defense against North Korea.
“We build the greatest military equipment in the world,” Trump told Hannity. “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97% of the time, and if you send two of them, it’s going to get knocked out.”
It’s unclear which missile-defense Trump was referring to, but the US has only one program designed to protect the mainland from intercontinental ballistic missiles: the ground-based midcourse defense.
According to Laura Grego, the senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the GMD’s “single-shot-kill probability” for an ICBM is unknown.
Even in “optimistic conditions,” Grego said, the GMD has about a 50% chance of knocking out a single ICBM. If it fires four missile interceptors for every incoming ICBM threat, that chance climbs to 94%, Grego said.
Grego’s estimates sit well with the GMD’s track record, made public by the Missile Defense Agency.
The US has other missile-defense systems with records closer to 97%, but they do not defend the entire US mainland or defend against ICBMs.
- Thomson Reuters
Trump’s overconfidence may signal a dangerous dismissal of the very real threat posed to the US by North Korea’s nuclear-tipped ICBMs in development – or it may be part of a strategy.
Tong Zhao, a leading expert on North Korea at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program in Beijing, told Business Insider that nuclear nations had to assume the worst of their enemies’ capabilities.
Basically, North Korea would never fire on the US unless it could be sure its missiles would achieve their intended purpose, but “the US will never allow” North Korea “to feel their deterrent is credible,” Zhao said.
One way the US does that is by continually investing in missile defenses and talking about cyber capabilities that could wipe out North Korea’s command structure.
- Thomson Reuters
Even China, which has for decades had a credible nuclear deterrent, fears that the US’s missile-defense system in South Korea, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, could leave it defenseless to a US attack.
But while a bluff from Trump could deter North Korea, Zhao said Pyongyang’s feeling of insecurity was likely to breed more and more dangerous nuclear and missile tests and deepen the stalemate between the two countries.