North Korean Missiles Could Hit the U.S. and Trick Missile Defense Systems, Experts Warn

U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets fly over the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Reuters

The U.S. missile defense system could be tricked by North Korean technology if Kim Jong Un's regime decided to launch a missile at the United States, arms experts said this week.

North Korea's latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which took place on Tuesday, demonstrated that the North Korean regime now has the technology to strike anywhere in the United States, including Washington, D.C. It's still unclear if North Korea has the technology to attach a nuclear warhead to its ICBM, but the revelation that a North Korean missile could reach the U.S. sparked debate about how effective the U.S. missile defense system would be if such an attack took place.

In an interview with Sean Hannity last month, President Trump boasted that the U.S. has "the greatest military equipment in the world."

"We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them, it's going to get knocked out," Trump said.

But many arms expert say that's not true.

"If you launch one interceptor in the testing there is about a 50 percent chance it will hit the target. But that's a statistical thing, and it assumes that the reasons they failed [to hit the target] is all the same. With statistics you can get them to say anything. I'm not entirely confident in the system," Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek.

"If North Korea were to launch only one missile at us, we could probably shoot it down. But their new missile could carry some very simple decoys, and it's not certain that the missile we send out will be able to tell the difference between debris, decoys and a real warhead."

Here’s how North Korea’s new ICBM stacks up. @CSIS

— CSIS Missile Defense (@Missile_Defense) December 2, 2017

The U.S. missile defense system consists of a complex web of radars, satellite sensors and interceptors that aim to detect and destroy any incoming warheads. In a perfect scenario, the system would track an ICBM as soon as it's launched and deploy interceptor missiles to obliterate incoming weapons.

The U.S. has around 40 interceptors stationed in Alaska and California that could be used to shoot down an incoming warhead. The system has been compared to "hitting a bullet with a bullet," and cost the U.S. military around $40 billion.

In reality, however, the system fails to destroy every target missile during tests, demonstrating that it would be possible for a North Korean missile to make its way past the U.S. defense system.

Decoys, for example, could be used to trick the sensors and make it more difficult for the system to identify a warhead. Using a "cooled shroud" could also lower a warhead's temperature and disguise it from interceptor missiles, which detect a warhead using the heat produced during a rocket launch.

If North Korea were to launch missiles towards Guam, here's how U.S. missile defense forces might respond.

— CSIS (@CSIS) November 28, 2017

The bellicose rhetoric between Trump and North Korea's leader has led many experts to worry that a war between the two nations is imminent. With this in mind, the possibility that the system is unreliable is disconcerting to many Americans. But some experts argue it is unlikely North Korea's leadership will carry out such an attack, which would inevitably lead to war and the eventual downfall of the North Korean regime.

Speaking at an event in Washington in October, Yong Suk Lee, the deputy assistant director of the CIA's new Korea Mission Center, argued that Kim Jong Un is a "very rational actor" who doesn't want war with the United States.

"The last person who wants conflict on the [Korean peninsula] is Kim Jong Un," Lee said, adding that he actually wants what all dictators want, "to rule for a very long time and die peacefully in his own bed."