Pentagon prepares for worst-case North Korea scenario

North Korea is good at hiding nuclear missiles, limiting warning time, U.S. Air Force general says

The vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff is taking a cautious approach to the question of whether North Korea’s ballistic missiles might already be capable of reaching the continental U.S.

“They have made some strides but it’s still true they haven’t demonstrated all of the components of an intercontinental ballistic missile system,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva said in a Jan. 30 meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C. “It is possible [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] has them, so we have to place the bet that he might have them.”

His comments at a Defense Writers Group breakfast organized by George Washington University contrasted sharply with comments by President Donald Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo in recent days. They have each cast the threat as imminent but not yet here.

In his State of the Union address to Congress, Trump said North Korean missiles “could very soon threaten our homeland.” A week earlier, Pompeo in an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said North Korea was “a handful of months” away from attaining a nuclear-armed missile capability that could reach the continental U.S. That was the same timeframe he gave last year.

A ballistic missile that could launch, fly through space and land thousands of miles away would need propulsion for range, rocket control for maneuverability, guidance for targeting and a casing for the missile targeting hardware that could survive heat and vibration during re-entry, Selva said. “What [Kim] has not demonstrated yet are the fusing and targeting technologies and survivable re-entry vehicle,” Selva said, noting that it would not be possible for North Korea to accurately test a re-entry vehicle’s durability underground.

North Korea’s efforts to hide its nuclear program from U.S. surveillance, Selva said, make it hard for the U.S. to confirm the status of its nuclear missile technology and make it “unlikely” the U.S. would have any warning of a missile attack before the warheads launched. Without intelligence about North Korea’s missile locations, he said, the U.S. could have “a dozen minutes or so” to intercept and destroy the missile after launch.

“All of the facilities they build for their ballistic missiles are actually designed to hide their existence,” he said. “We are as diligent as we can possibly be in cataloging their ballistic missile capability.”

North Korea has become “very good” at predicting the orbits of U.S. surveillance constellations and hiding missiles by moving them on missile launcher vehicles, Selva said. Surveillance collected on North Korea’s military, however, makes him confident the U.S. could destroy most of its operational infrastructure including barracks for missile engineers if needed.

“We don’t do pre-emption as a matter of course,” Selva said. But if North Korea were to show “hostile intent,” a first strike to destroy nuclear missiles before launch remains an option, he said.

Editor’s note: The photo at the top of the page is by Stefan Krasowski. It was taken at the North Korean Victory Day parade in 2013.

A man in military uniform speaks animatedly to two other men in suits at a formal gathering.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30. Credit: U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann

Pentagon prepares for worst-case North Korea scenario