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North Korea’s Nuclear Missiles Keep Getting Better (So Must U.S. Missile Defenses)

KCNA Hwasong-16 Image
KCNA screenshot of Hwasong-16 ICBM.

Senior U.S. defense officials have stressed the need for the United States to continue to invest in improvements to the country’s ballistic missile defense capabilities in response to the growing threat posed by North Korea’s continued development of long-range ballistic missile systems.

In a statement submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Lt. General Daniel K. Karbler reported that the defense community would focus on the development of improved missile interceptors and on enhancing the United States’ missile defense posture in order to counter the threat posed by North Korea’s pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

North Korea has continued to develop and improve “the survivability, lethality, and diversification of its missile force,” according to Lt. General Karbler, which threatens the security of both the United States and its allies.

Currently, the United States homeland is protected from long-range ballistic missile threats by the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System, a combination of Ground-based Interceptors deployed in California and Alaska along with an array of sensors on land, at sea, and in space and supported by multiple and distributed fire control systems. The Department of Defense has also been exploring the efficacy of using the Aegis ballistic missile defense system deployed on U.S. Navy surface combatants to intercept simple ICBMs as a means to supplement the GMD system.

DOD has also unveiled plans to improve the capabilities of the current GMD system. Previously, these efforts revolved around the development of a Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) that would have replaced the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles (EKV) – which are designed to destroy missile targets after separating from a booster rocket – on all current and future missile interceptors.

The RKV program was canceled in 2019, however, and the Pentagon is now shifting its focus towards replacing the current Ground-based Interceptors with a competitive development program for the Next-Generation Interceptor.


New what appears to be Hwasong-16 ICBM

DOD is also looking at improving missile defense capabilities overseas, including those in South Korea that are meant to defend the ROK against the growing North Korean ballistic missile threat. Efforts to improve ballistic missile defense capabilities in South Korea will likely revolve around upgrades to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed to South Korea, as well as integration of that system with the Patriot systems also operational in South Korea.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.