There has been much speculation of late, as North Korea continues testing longer-range ICBMs, why the United States or Japan (or both) have not attempted to shoot them down.

One side says any shoot-down of a North Korean missile, like stopping and boarding North Korean-flagged vessels at sea, represents an act of war that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo had better be prepared to counter.

But another, emerging, point of view is that the U.S. simply does not yet have a reliable capability to intercept ICBMs — from North Korea or anyone else. And, these people say, a miss would not only prove U.S. incompetence, it would sap our allies’ confidence in American missile defense capability. A lose-lose, in other words.

A new assessment along the lines of the latter point of view encapsulates the dilemma:

“The United States military can defend against a limited North Korea attack on Seoul, Japan and the United States,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford at the annual Aspen Security Forum in July.

Is this true? It depends what you mean by the word “limited.”

If North Korea cooperated and shot their new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, at the United States with adequate warning so that we could prepare, and if the warhead looked pretty much like we expect it to look, and if they only shot one, and if they did not try to spoof the defense with decoys that looked like the warhead, or block the defense with low-power jammers, or hide the warhead in a cloud of chaff, or blind the defense by attacking the vulnerable radars, then, maybe this is true. The United States might have a 50-50 chance of hitting such a missile. If we had time to fire four or five interceptors, then the odds could go up.

But North Korea is unlikely to cooperate. It will do everything possible to suppress the defenses.

The assessment further notes that U.S. missile defenses have never been successfully tested against existing countermeasures, including “separating RVs [reentry vehicles], spin-stabilized RVs, RV reorientation, radar absorbing material, booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, chaff, and simple (balloon) decoys.”

In short, we don’t yet have a missile defense system that is reliable enough to ensure adequate defense against ICBMs from any nation, according to this assessment. [source]

I tend to side with the skeptics on this one.

Why it’s on our radar: Information in this article helps satisfy Priority Intelligence Requirement 3: What are the latest indicators of a U.S.-North Korea conflict?  Each week in our Strategic Intelligence Summary, we gauge the likelihood and scope of conflict with Russia, China, North Korea, and in the Middle East, and track the latest developments in each region.  Subscribe here to receive our premium intelligence products prepared by Intelligence and special operations veterans.