The Hill: N. Korea threat makes work on game-changing missile defense technology a priority
Seventy-five years ago, our nation embarked on the Manhattan Project to create weapons of mass destruction. The threat from North Korea shows we need another Manhattan Project to stop such weapons. The U.S. should harness all the resources of this nation to create a robust missile defense system that can shoot down multiple ICBMs from North Korea. For the next five years, creating such a defensive shield should be the number one priority of the Pentagon.
President Trump’s lack of a comprehensive strategy and reckless war of words with North Korea has sent the world into a panic. But all the provocative talk in the world won’t change the fact that the Hermit Kingdom is a nuclear power and will soon have the nascent capability to strike the U.S. mainland. We need to dramatically shift our thinking as to how to tackle this new reality.
For all its rapid technological advancements over the last decade, North Korea still lacks the capabilities to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses. U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, which launches interceptor missiles to collide with an adversaries’ ICBM, will soon have 44 interceptors. However, given the pace of North Korea’s nuclear program, it is likely that over the next decade they will build enough ICBMs to exceed our defensive capabilities.
As an Air Force officer stationed in Guam in the 1990s, we trained for the North Korean threat. What we knew then remains true today: there are no good U.S. military options. The Kim regime possesses nuclear, biological and conventional weapons capable of raining destruction down on millions of civilians and tens of thousands of U.S. service members in South Korea, Japan and Guam. As Secretary of Defense Mattis testified before Congress this year, a military option would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” The challenge we face as a nation is how to develop alternative options to mitigate the threat.
History may provide some guidance. In 1942, the United States embarked on a massive program to create a game-changing weapon: the atomic bomb. Over the course of five years, President Roosevelt poured well-over $25 billion in today’s dollars into the Manhattan Project to put a new piece on the chess board.
Today’s threats require a new Manhattan Project: a layered missile defense system starting with high-energy lasers that can destroy ICBMs during the initial boost phase. For years, research and development programs for lasers have inched along at DARPA, the Pentagon’s emerging technology arm, and the Missile Defense Agency.
Recently, laser technology has taken dramatic leaps forward. Technological advancements in power source, power levels and beam control have propelled the field to the next level of lethality.
While the concept may sound like science fiction, it would not be the first time that missile defense innovation disproved the sceptics. The Iron Dome system, a short-range missile defense system jointly developed by the U.S. and Israel, was often dismissed during development for trying to “shoot a bullet with another bullet.” Yet today, Iron Dome is deployed throughout Israel and protects population centers from rockets with astonishing accuracy.
Despite the growing North Korean threat, the U.S. government is neglecting to adequately invest in game-changing technology. While the House of Representatives has wisely increased overall missile defense spending this year, there is no national effort; programs to fund “directed energy” projects are a small fraction of what we spent on the Manhattan Project. An amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill I passed with Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) doubles the Missile Defense Agency’s program—to a meager $20 million.
There is no silver bullet to addressing the North Korean threat, and our strategy will need to include traditional elements of diplomacy, additional economic pressure on the regime, and deterrence to raise the cost of North Korean aggression. But a strategy that is truly up to the task of meeting tomorrow’s threats requires new capabilities—and the national focus and substantive investments to get us there. When members of Congress return to D.C. in September, we need to give this issue the funding and prioritization that it deserves.
For over 20 years, we have been staring at the chess board as North Korea carved itself a queen. The smart move now is not to launch a risky offensive—but to put our own new piece on the board that can neutralize theirs.
Lieu represents California's 33rd District and is a former active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force.