North Korea said that it has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea said that it has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). EPA - KCNA

North Korean missiles can now hit the US

NORTH Korea has successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, sending a chill through the US defence community.

US experts say the new weapon has the capacity to reach Alaska, which marks the first time North Korea's weapons program has posed a direct threat to the US homeland.

And North Korea doesn't plan to stop there.

In a dastardly piece of propaganda on Independence Day, leader Kim Jong-un said the missile was a "gift" for the "American bastards".

"We should often send them gift packages so they won't be too bored," Mr Kim said "with a guffaw", according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The successful missile test has shone a spotlight on a major flaw in America's considerable armour: its missile defence system.

America has invested more than $US40 billion ($A52.7 billion) in its ground-based antimissile program since 2002 - and yet no one can say with certainty that the system could stop a North Korean missile from hitting US soil.

The system has been criticised from many quarters - some say it has been underfunded; others argue a lack of oversight has allowed it to effectively waste billions. Worse still, some defence experts argue its entire existence only increases the risk of a missile attack on the States.

In the event that North Korea follows through on its threat, the citizens of the US's great metropolises, such as Los Angeles and New York, are relying on an ageing system that has never been proven to work.

An aerial view New York.
An aerial view New York. News Corp Australia


The US's antimissile shield is known as the ground-based mid-course defence (GMD) system, a network of 36 "interceptors" stationed on the ground at military bases in Alaska and California.

In the event of a missile attack, the army would launch a "kill vehicle" that would pulverise the missile in mid-air. The best way to picture it is to think of hitting one bullet with another bullet.

The technology is dated and the program's test record is poor. From the 18 tests carried out this century, the Pentagon admits that eight of them failed.

Up until a few months ago, the Pentagon's own testing department rated that it only had a "limited capability" to defend US soil from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

It upgraded that assessment slightly after a successful drill on May 30, its first live-fire test against an ICBM.

"GMD has demonstrated capability to defend the US homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental missile threats with simple countermeasures," a Pentagon memo said.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists, which published a scathing report on the program last year, argues that its test record remains unacceptably low and that it has still not demonstrated an ability to stop a missile under real-world conditions.

The union's Global Security Program senior scientist, Laura Grego, said that even the successful tests were not "operationally realistic".

She said that the GMD tests only occurred during the day and that they counted on the enemy shooting only one missile.

"For good testing, you need a range of lighting conditions - day and night," Dr Grego told

"Also, an adversary can try to make their attack more effective by confusing you with bits of metal to confuse the radar or a balloon that looks like the warhead. They can pepper the sky with a bunch of decoys.

"One strategy to make the attack better is to double or quadruple up the number of missiles.

"We've never tested for that. We've never attempted to use more than one interceptor."

The Council on Foreign Relations' senior fellow for Korea studies, Scott Snyder, expressed similar worries.

"There has been testing going on but they're not testing in actual battle and I think that is a concern," he told

"There is a level of and a rationale for some confidence, but you want to be 100 per cent under these circumstances.

"We don't know if it's going to be one [missile] or many."

The former head of the Missile Defense Agency, Trey Obering, admitted to the Financial Times that there was no certainty the system would work.

"It's at least as good as a coin toss," he said.

Dr Grego said the system suffered because its aims were unclear.

If it's designed to deter North Korea from expanding its weapons program then its an abject failure, but similarly it can't claim to stop US cities from being blown off the face of the earth.

"Really if you are talking about to defending the US, everything goes wrong," she said.

"If we really wanted something to save cities in the last-ditch, you would be challenging (the tests) until you know it works.

"But what is happening now is they are testing the system in simplified ways to demonstrate successes, but we have to build something that really works.

"It doesn't seem to me that the testing is being taken seriously. It's, in a sense, symbolic."

The US M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System fires an MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile during a US and South Korea joint missile drill. Picture: South Korean Defence Ministry via Getty Images

The US M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System fires an MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile during a US and South Korea joint missile drill. Picture: South Korean Defence Ministry via Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images


Despite these criticisms, US politicians have argued that Americans could have more confidence in the system if it was better funded.

In his recommendations for a boost in defence spending, Republican senator John McCain blamed the Obama administration for cutting the Missile Defense Agency budget by 14 per cent and argued for increased investment in the GMD system.

But Dr Grego said throwing extra money at the program would only give America "more of something that doesn't work very well".


Dr Grego argues that the continued development of the antimissile system actually makes the US more vulnerable to attack because it creates an "arms-race dynamic".

"People think that missile defence deters North Korea for developing missiles. Well, it clearly hasn't deterred North Korea. It needs to build more missiles," she said.

"If you build a four-foot fence, your neighbour builds a five-foot ladder.

"We can't make [the system] good enough and at a reasonable cost that it won't increase the threat … In that sense you have to think - are you increasing the threats you are facing?"

Mr Snyder said he was worried about "overconfidence" on North Korea's part.

"I am a little bit concerned that North Korea may believe it's [missile] capability gives them a power projection capability and protection that may prove to be not the case," he told

"There may be a miscalculation about what other parts of the world will do in response to North Korea brandishing its capability, the level of protection it gives and level of deference that it generates."

The Union for Concerned Scientists says only diplomacy is the only long-term solution.

"I think there's no way out of real engagement and compromise," Dr Grego said.

News Corp Australia

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