Nukes of Hazard: Vandenberg, Star Wars, and North Korea
Is Vandenberg Air Force Base Our Best Defense or Our Greatest Risk?
Thursday, June 1, 2017
This spring, as American warships and submarines gathered offshore, Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s baby-faced dictator, threatened to reduce the United States “to ashes” with “invincible Hwasong rockets tipped with nuclear warheads” if even a single bullet was fired toward his country. The threat, like so many from the Kim dynasty, felt empty and overplayed. North Korea was still years away from building a missile capable of getting anywhere near the U.S. Or so we thought.
On May 14, North Korea tested a new ballistic missile with what American analysts called “stunning success.” Shot nearly straight up, the Hwasong-12 reached an altitude of 1,312 miles above Earth before harmlessly splashing down in the Sea of Japan. Had it been fired on a flatter trajectory, it would have flown approximately 3,000 miles, putting the U.S. Air Force Base in Guam 2,200 miles away well within striking distance. The demonstration, wrote aerospace engineer John Schilling at Johns Hopkins University, “represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile.”
This fast-shrinking gap between Kim Jong Un’s bluster and North Korea’s true military might has thrown the Trump administration and our traditional Southeast Asian allies into a panic. And it’s heightened jitters among the American public, especially those living on the West Coast and in Hawai‘i, where echoes of Pearl Harbor are now reverberating at a higher pitch. But clear information, let alone assurances, is not forthcoming from the White House. Trump ominously warned reporters in April the U.S. might very well face a “major, major conflict” with North Korea. “Absolutely,” he said. Yet his cabinet continues to stress diplomacy over intervention. These contradictory approaches only add to an increasing sense of confusion.
The expanding ranges of North Korea’s missile arsenal put the United States squarely in its crosshairs. With a reported range of 6,500 miles, the Taepodong-2 is a militarized version of the country’s Unha-3 rocket that successfully put a satellite into orbit last year. Given recent nuclear tests, some U.S. analysts suspect North Korea may soon attempt to attach a warhead to the Taepodong-2.
Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies
Meanwhile, the so-called Hermit Kingdom is preparing for yet another underground nuclear bomb test. It would be its fourth in five years; the most recent was in September. The last three tests generated Hiroshima-size explosions. Experts also now believe the country could be able to produce a new nuclear bomb every six weeks, and could, in just a few more years, build a warhead capable of reaching Seattle.
Many in Congress seem in the dark, too. So much so that last week, a bipartisan group of 64 members sent a letter to the president, asking what steps he and his cabinet were taking to engage in direct talks with North Korea. “In such a volatile region, an inconsistent or unpredictable policy runs the risk of unimaginable conflict,” the letter reads. It also emphasized the 30,000 U.S. service members and more than 100,000 U.S. civilians who reside just over the border in South Korea.
Situated in the middle of all this — geographically, strategically, and symbolically — is Santa Barbara County’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. The nearly 100,000-acre space launch facility is one of only two locations in the entire country to house the specialized missiles that represent our first, last, and only line of defense against an incoming nuclear warhead fired specifically by North Korea or Iran.
This Tuesday afternoon, Vandenberg conducted a test of the troubled Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. It was a success and reinvigorated a Pentagon program dogged by expensive delays and embarrassing flops. But serious questions remain about the reliability of the $40 billion system and our ability to protect ourselves from a sneak attack by a rogue state.
Flying White Elephants?
The GMD program is a direct descendent of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposed by President Ronald Reagan in his famous 1983 Star Wars speech that envisioned a security system capable of shooting nuclear missiles out of the sky. Reagan criticized the longstanding “mutual assured destruction” doctrine that U.S., Russia, and China had long adhered to as a nuclear deterrent — the assumption that no country would launch a first strike for fear of a devastating counterattack. Reagan wanted a Star Wars system as backup. Some of the SDI’s earliest test launches took place at Vandenberg, and a commemorative limestone and bronze bust of Reagan still looks out over its sprawling missile range.
The Clinton administration continued funding the project that eventually became the GMD program but opted not to make it operational because of its technical difficulties. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, however, he fast-tracked GMD to fulfill a campaign promise. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld exempted the missile agency overseeing the project from the Pentagon’s normal testing standards. The final products, hardly more than advanced prototypes, were then quickly approved, locked, and loaded into underground silos — 32 at a base in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and four at the north end of Vandenberg. This rush job is the reason for GMD’s many failures, according to top government officials from several administrations.
GMD interceptors, as they’re called, are 60-foot-tall, three-stage rockets affixed with a five-foot, 150-pound “kill vehicle” on their nose. (A multistage rocket utilizes two or more sections with their own engines and propellant to reach a desired speed and altitude.) In the event of an attack, the interceptor would blast toward the incoming warhead as it entered space. Just before the warhead was about to begin reentry — the “midcourse” of its journey — the kill vehicle would separate from the interceptor and fly toward its target at four miles per second. At that velocity, a direct hit would obliterate the warhead: no need for explosives. The whole exercise is comparable to striking one speeding bullet with another.
What could possibly go wrong? Since 2004, and with this week’s test, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has conducted 10 highly scripted mock attacks. Dummy nukes were launched from a known location at a set time with a prearranged trajectory. They were even fired at a specific time of day so the sun didn’t blind the interceptor’s navigation system. Still, the interceptors and their kill vehicles, built by Raytheon and all launched from Vandenberg, missed their marks six out of those 10 times due to a host of engineering issues — thrusters malfunctioned, fuel burned poorly, separation went wrong, etc. “If these tests were planned to fool U.S. defenses, as a real enemy would do, the failure rate would be even worse,” said Philip E. Coyle III in an email exchange with The Santa Barbara Independent last week.
Coyle is a former director of operational testing for the U.S. Department of Defense and a steady critic of GMD. He noted that the system’s performance rate had actually gotten worse over time since it was first tested in 1999. But he also acknowledged the overwhelming challenge of the mission itself. “Missile defense is the most difficult technical problem the Pentagon has ever faced,” he said. The Department of Defense has been trying to develop missile defenses ever since WWII when Nazi Germany launched missiles at London and Belgium. We’ve been trying to solve this problem for roughly 70 years.”
A Minuteman III missile roars away from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the Pentagon regularly tests the land-based arm of our nuclear triad.
Coyle nevertheless questioned the wisdom of throwing more time, effort, and taxpayer money at the problem, especially if the U.S. continues to put missile defense before diplomacy. “In response, America’s adversaries are likely to build more and more long-range missiles so as to overwhelm U.S. strategic defenses,” he said. “Exactly the opposite of what we would want.” Given the low reliability of our fleet, U.S. generals have articulated a “shot doctrine” of four interceptors for every one incoming warhead. That means a volley of 10 rockets would quickly deplete our defenses. North Korea is reportedly already in possession of enough enriched uranium to make precisely that number of nukes.
In a telephone press conference hosted last week by The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, John Tierney, former chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the missile defense program, said he expected the Pentagon to claim this Tuesday’s test a success, regardless of the actual outcome. During previous GMD hearings on Capitol Hill, he said, he witnessed “a lot of obfuscation, understatement, and overstatement” by military brass on the subject. The Union of Concerned Scientists, The National Academy of Sciences, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have all voiced varying degrees of skepticism over the assurances given by Pentagon officials to lawmakers. Just a year ago, the GAO, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, said the system’s performance had been “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates with a smoke after the successful test flight of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.