Why U.S. hasn't shot down Rocket Man's missiles

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) October 2, 2017

President Barack Obama left office assuring us the world was a safer place. We quickly discovered that was not the case. While strengthening our enemies' nuclear programs, he simultaneously weakened our capability to defend against such nuclear-armed rogue states like Iran and North Korea. No wonder threats continue to stream out from Pyongyang.

On Sept. 15, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test, launching the missile on its longest flight ever, overflying the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

While the ICBM was in flight, the U.S. and Japan were in a quandary - not too dissimilar from what the U.S. faced 72 years earlier before dropping atomic bombs on Japan.

A great debate ensued among American civilian and military leaders prior to attacking the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It focused on whether to warn Tokyo in advance of the attack to minimize casualties, or to invite Japan's leadership to witness a demonstration of the bomb's destructive power, or just to drop the bombs without warning.

The first two options were ruled out for fear we did not know if the bombs would work. If they failed to do so, Japanese officials returning home afterward would probably be more committed not to surrender to an enemy who had lost face.

Similarly, as Pyongyang fired its most recent ICBM - although the U.S. and Japan have defensive missile systems to protect against it - no decision was made to shoot it down. Why? Because both countries' defensive missile systems have existing holes in their coverage. Thus, the fear arose, similar to World War II, about a failed effort only emboldening Kim Jong-un further, knowing gaps existed in our system.

The problem was this:

Japan's Patriot missile system could not intercept the ICBM as it traveled too high and fast. U.S. ships equipped with the Aegis missile defense system could have had a shot at the intercept. However, successfully doing so required a certain "alignment of the stars." A sufficient number of platforms at sea - recently reduced by two due to the collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain - positioned in the right manner to cover this particular ICBM's flight path entering into its final descending phase was needed. Obviously, the ICBM's final descent would also need occur within the effective range of the Aegis system.

It is incredible that as Obama stood by allowing our enemies to develop a nuclear arsenal, he simultaneously downgraded our ability to counter their threat. As one critic points out, "Under the Obama administration, significant cuts in defense spending fueled by a miscalculation of the North Korea threat and a controversial Cold War-era strategy set the U.S.'s missile-defense program back several years. Today, it remains woefully inchoate."

As Kim continues his nuclear weapon and missile bravado, backing it up with missile launches and underground bomb tests, a majority of Americans now support military action against him. They realize Kim is a madman with a plan.

It appears before going postal with his tests, Kim put a pre-emptive plan into action in February by eliminating an option the outside world might later choose to pursue - regime change. The most likely candidate to replace Kim in a country committed to his family's rule was his half-brother, who Kim had assassinated. That assassination made a coup against Kim iffy, running the risk of only having him replaced by an unknown entity who might prove to be worse.

As the U.S., Japan and South Korea consider their options now, only Seoul seems to live in a world devoid of reality, still believing diplomacy with Pyongyang will work. It never has. Yet Seoul just approved, as Pyongyang undoubtedly planned, giving North Korea $8 million in humanitarian aid in the form of nutritional food products for children. While such aid is badly needed with 200,000 North Korean children suffering from acute malnutrition (although one would not know it looking at Pyongyang's bloated leader), doing so sends the wrong message.

There have been three efforts made by dictators to develop nuclear weapons.

When Iraq's Saddam Hussein attempted to do it, Israel launched a surprise air attack in 1981 on a nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad, destroying it and receiving universal condemnation. Ironically, even the U.S. criticized Israel, although less than a decade later what would have proven a major concern for invading American forces during the Persian Gulf War was avoided.

In 2007, with Syrian President Bashar Assad secretly working with Iran and North Korea to build a nuclear reactor in his country - and with the U.S. reluctant to act to stop its construction - Israel again took action to destroy it.

A third dictator with nuclear weapons ambitions was Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Surprisingly, he opted to voluntarily dismantle his program in 2003. Whether his rapprochement to the U.S. was out of fear due to our having just toppled Saddam Hussein or other reasons, it is the only time military force proved unnecessary against a dictator seeking a nuclear arsenal.

Clearly, Israel's actions in Iraq and Syria, unlike Obama's, really did make the world a safer place by keeping nukes out of the hands of madmen like Kim. While Israel has not yet taken military action against Iran's mullahs, who continue paving the way for their own nuclear arsenal, it recognizes that option remains open.

Accordingly, in 2010 Israel sought and obtained overflight rights from Saudi Arabia to conduct an air attack on Iran's nuclear cites. But Tehran, like Pyongyang, continues its nuclear effort because threats to stop it are meaningless.

While the unicorn is an animal of the mythical world, so too is the belief Pyongyang will voluntarily surrender its nuclear program absent military action. Dreaming about the former being found will not get one killed; dreaming about the latter happening will.

A version of this piece also appeared on http://www.wnd.com/    

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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