Much has been made of the activation of the nascent US-based missile defense system seemingly in response to North Korea’s imminent test of what we believe (but do not know) to be a long-range ballistic missile. The DPRK is obviously looking for attention given that the focus of the West has shifted drastically towards Iran recently. US officials are denying that they are considering shooting down a North Korean missile should it be launched. However, this scenario raises an interesting question; should the US have turned on the system at all in response to the North Koreans? This question is related to practical concerns regarding what the US may (unintentionally) end up signaling to international actors, friend and foe alike.

I would argue, in agreement with Michael Levi, that given the lack of reliability displayed by the system thus far the US would be better served not attempting an intercept of a DPRK test missile. I would go further and argue that simply turning on the system may have negative effects if the North Koreans do test fire even if we do not attempt to shoot down a missile.

By activating the system we have essentially signaled to the rest of the world that we are ready (if not necessarily willing) to use the system against a North Korean test. We can deny it, but what matters most is the conclusion others will draw for themselves. My guess is they see this (as most do) as a disuassive signal to the DPRK. So with the system on the DPRK has two options; to test fire or not to test fire. If the North Koreans do not launch then we dodge a bullet (no pun intended). But let us say they choose the former option. To paraphrase the old adage about passing in football, three things can happen and two of them are bad. Here are the scenarios:

  1. The US decides not to attempt an intercept of the test missile
  2. The US attempts an intercept and fails
  3. The US attempts an intercept and succeeds

Scenario three is obviously the best outcome. The US successfully downs a long-range missile, signaling to adversaries and allies that its defensive threat is credible. However, this outcome is far from certain–in fact, there seems to be a greater probability that we would fail.

Scenario two is clearly a bad outcome for the US since both adversaries and allies are now privy to what many have been speculating–the inability of the system to function in a reliable manner. Other international actors now become more fully informed of the (lack of) ability that our missile defense system.

Scenario one, I would argue, is just as bad as scenario two. By attempting to shoot down the missile and missing the US signals that the system doesn’t work. However, if we turn the system on and fail to react to a DPRK missile test the question will be raised in the minds of friend and foe alike–why not? Why didn’t the US try to intercept the missile? Some might argue that the answer would be that we knew the missile wasn’t targeted at US interests and didn’t have a live nuclear warhead. But we have no reason to believe that now, so why turn on the system? The only reason to turn the system on is to a) try to dissuade the launch in the first place and b) if the launch takes place, show the DPRK that developing such missiles is futile since we have a system that can make their deterrent value irrelevant. For this to work we would have to actually intercept a launched missile, regardless of whether the missile was an actual, imminent threat to our interests—we need a demonstration to project our reputation for a particular capability. So again, the question remains why wouldn’t the US try to intercept? The dangerous (and most likely correct) answer is that we are not confident that we could intercept it and wouldn’t want to show our hand.

In either case the situation does not look like one where the US can gain any considerable advantage. If we were more confident in the system’s ability I would say go for it—certainly there are complications from such an action but the signaling value of a successful intercept may outweigh those complications. However, given its mixed record so far I think we are risking a bit too much to dissuade the DPRK launch. There are other ways to dissuade such a launch that do not include the potentially negative signaling consequences recounted above.

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