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The Other North Korean Threat

by Travis Korson    •    Townhall   North Korea Kim Jong Un

Over the last few days, North Korean actions that ultimately scuttled the release of Sony Picture Entertainment’s release of “The Interview” have dominated the headlines.

To date the current national security leadership has been vague in describing a formal American response to the attack. Coupled with Sony’s ultimate decision to not release the film publicly, Kim Jong-un is likely feeling emboldened. This may very well mean an expansion of their cyber program, a cause for serious alarm. Even more concerning may be what a nuclear missile program looks like in a newly emboldened North Korea.

Sanctions have proven unsuccessful to date in deterring bad behavior by the North Koreans and countless negotiations have failed to make the country a more responsible actor in the international community. History has proven that the ability to neutralize threats to the homeland, and to project American power in the Asia-Pacific region is the only things this regime recognizes.

Key to American defense of the homeland and power projection in the Asia-Pacific are the ships of the United States Navy Seventh Fleet, specifically the Ticonderoga cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers that serve as the backbone of the AEGIS Combat system.

AEGIS is the sea-based component of our layered missile defense system and serves two very important and distinct purposes. First, the system is a key player in the Ballistic Missile Defense System, serving on the front lines against North Korean missile threats. Second, AEGIS equipped ships are responsible for defending against airborne threats that other ships in the fleet, such as aircraft carriers, cannot alone defend themselves from. This allows our naval vessels to operate in hostile environments within the range of enemy missiles.

Intelligence estimates indicate that the North Korean government may already have nuclear-capable ballistic missiles with a range of up to 6,200 miles, enough to hit Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the western Untied States. China, an ally of North Korea, is developing ballistic missiles that will deny our ships access to the waters surrounding their countries, putting our aircraft carriers out of range and rendering them obsolete.

America’s rivals are looking to develop systems to outmaneuver AEGIS defenses, neutralizing a key advantage in air and missile defense. That is why it is important to develop and fund the next-generation technologies that will deny our rivals the ability to deny the US Navy access to areas of strategic importance.

A case in point is radar upgrades on the Arleigh Burke destroyers. The current, SPY-1 radar has performed admirably during its lifetime, but a more powerful and cost effective radar, the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) is currently being developed.

The AMDR is designed to defend against new offensive weapons and can neutralize ballistic missiles as well as navy and land-based air threats simultaneously. It is over 30 times more powerful than existing radars and has a range 2.5 times greater. The result is an ability to track an area that is 15 times larger than that of the SPY-1 radar. AMDR will also help ships run more efficiently by reducing the space, weight, power and cooling demands on naval vessels, maximizing the service life of these vessels and helping the Pentagon cut costs in a time of budget austerity.

We are well on our way to the next generation of sea-based missile defense. The Pentagon has allocated up to $1.63 billion to develop, test and deploy the new AMDR and Congress has already appropriated $385 million for the initial development.

But in a time of budget austerity and sequestration we must be mindful of funding disruptions that can delay modernization. This year, for example, a Congressional committee that controls defense spending decreased AMDR funding by $17 million. The cut was based off an expected program delay that never materialized. The funding will likely be restored but it illustrates how quickly important programs can get off track if we are not vigilant.

The AMDR, while important, is not the only upgrade needed for next generation naval air defense. Congress must also continue funding development of advanced versions of the Standard Missile-3, the interceptor component of AEGIS, while simultaneously exploring new technologies such as the Laser Weapon System and a new generation of cruise missiles.

While the cyber attacks are cause for concern, we must not also forget the serious risks North Korean missiles pose to the American public. Kim Jong-un will continue to threaten the homeland and bully American companies as long as he thinks he can get away with it. That is why it is critical that we continue to invest in the technologies necessary to project American power and neutralize the North Korean threat.

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Travis Korson is a Research Fellow at Frontiers of Freedom.