These Are the High-Tech Weapons the US Might Use Against North Korea
The Hermit Kingdom’s recent successes in missile testing are fueling the Pentagon’s search for high-tech measures that might knock out command-and-control structures or even missiles in mid-flight.
North Korea has dramatically ramped up its missile program in recent months, testing not just more missiles than ever before but also a widening variety of designs.
The Hermit Kingdom has fired 23 missiles in 16 tests since February, and unveiled six new missile systems this year alone. Over his six years in power, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has launched more missiles than his two long-serving predecessors combined.
All that activity has fueled a new sense of urgency among American military planners searching for new methods to disrupt the flight of a nuclear-tipped missile headed for the US or one of its allies, according to defense specialists. Discussion is ranging over newfangled, futuristic devices like focused-microwave-beam weapons and lasers mounted on drones. The new push has included a request in November for $4 billion in emergency spending for advanced missile defense and cyberweapons by the Trump administration.
But amid all this new money and innovation, experts say no single technique is guaranteed to work.
“There is no silver bullet,” Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, told Seeker. “It's simply very hard to defend against ballistic missiles.”
That hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from trying.
One novel approach that’s been getting attention in Washington lately is microwave weapons. The idea is to zap the launch site or control center with a powerful, targeted microwave blast fired from a low-flying missile to effectively melt the target’s electronic hardware.
"Think about when you put something in your microwave that has metal on it," Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, told NBC News. "You know how badly that goes? Imagine directing those microwaves at someone's electronics."
This month, NBC reported that the microwave concept was discussed in a White House meeting on August 4.
The weapon in question is known as a CHAMP missile, short for Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project. Delivered from a B-52 bomber, the missile can reportedly fly 700 miles at low altitude and emit sharp pulses of microwave energy. In theory, the microwave blast might be able to simply pull the plug on everything at a given facility without causing any fatalities.
One advantage of a microwave blast is that it might cause less collateral damage than a conventional attack, and therefore, possibly, represent a less aggressive approach than a conventional missile strike — reducing the odds of massive retaliation by North Korea against neighboring South Korea.
Or maybe not. The requirement to be relatively close to the target would mean launching a noisy, low-flying projectile deep into North Korea, a move that could have unpredictable consequences whether it explodes or not, analysts said.
“Something like the CHAMP is a pretty nifty idea, but if you know exactly where the missile is, and you know they're about to launch it, then it's way simpler to just drop a bomb on it,” Scharre said.
Another high-tech solution being considered is placing high-powered lasers on drones, and hovering them near the missile’s likely early flight path. As the missile ascends, the laser could burn it out of the sky like a flying light saber.
Using a light beam would help resolve a key problem with incoming missiles: their astonishing speed. As an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile ascends, it gradually reaches a velocity of up to 7 kilometers per second. A bullet from an M16 rifle, by contrast, travels at roughly 1 kilometer per second.
That’s where a laser comes in handy.
“You don’t want to be chasing an ICBM — you’re going to lose that game,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The nice thing about the laser is that, even with a limited range, it's going to have an instantaneous reaction.”
The American Navy has already developed a laser weapon that can shoot drones out of the sky from a warship.
And back in 2010, an airborne Boeing 747 with a massive laser gun successfully shot down a missile over the Pacific. After just a few seconds, the energy beam created a stress fracture in its target that caused the missile to break apart mid-flight.
Yet while this approach works in theory, and even in limited practice, the key problem has been designing a laser weapon system that’s both powerful and small enough to fit on a drone. The Defense Department’s program to outfit a lumbering Boeing 747 with a laser weapon was retired in 2012 after 16 years and billions of dollars in spending.
“It’s not enough to build a high-powered laser, you have to stick it on an airplane,” Scharre said. “That becomes a difficult technical problem.”
For the moment, it’s still not clear whether a laser-drone solution might be right around the corner, or over a decade away, said Scharre.
'You can aim a remote control at a lawnmower, but that won’t turn the engine off.’
While details are cloaked in secrecy, US officials are also thought to be working feverishly on cyber techniques for hacking the North Korean command-and-control centers.
In theory, that could allow US forces to block missiles from even being launched.
The problem: Using a cyberweapon against North Korea means deploying a high-tech solution against a low-tech adversary.
North Korea may be able to thwart 21st-century computer warfare simply by relying on 20th century command and control.
“With cyber attacks, you’re exploiting an adversary’s use of advanced computer systems,” Scharre said. “But North Korea isn’t the most technologically advanced place. You can get around cyber attacks by relying on hand-written messages, or telephones.”
Some hardware in North Korea may simply not be connected to a hackable IT system.
“You can aim a remote control at a lawnmower, but that won’t turn the engine off,” Karako said. “There’s a certain vanity in thinking we can wave a cyber wand and make these problems go away. A mobile missile, out on a truck, not connected to any grid, may simply not be susceptible.”
The key missile-defense technology the US has already deployed is known technically as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD).
The system starts with a global network of sensors, some in space or at sea, designed to track any incoming projectile and relay information to a center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
If the missile is determined to be a threat, officials may choose to fire 44 ground-based interceptors from locations in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Those interceptors don’t carry explosive payloads. Given the high speeds achieved by ICBMs, simply crashing into another flying object may be enough to simply vaporize both objects, said Karako.
But the more missiles that are fired at once, the more interceptors must be used to have a good chance of stopping them, Karako said.
“It’s a math problem,” Karako said. And North Korea’s expanding missile program is prompting questions about whether the US has the numbers on its side.
In late November, North Korea finally tested a missile it said could reach any part of the mainland United States. Now, US defense officials are asking themselves what more the country can realistically do to get prepared.
“We’ve seen this coming for a long time, but in the last couple of years, there’s been a qualitative and quantitative spike in their missile success, and Pentagon and defense types are very, very seized of the matter,” Karako said. “They've acquired some real missile skills.”
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