An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch on Friday by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that landed roughly 200 miles from Japan’s coast, and reports this week that North Korea was threatening an ICBM strike against the United States, are fresh warnings that the country continues to develop missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads.
“As you know, what’s happening in North Korea is they’re testing and the threat is increasing,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) earlier this week during a Heritage Foundation event. “In fact, for over a year, the experts have been saying it’s not a matter of if, but when North Korea will develop an [ICBM] that could hit not only Alaska and Hawaii, but the entire continental United States.”
That day is fast approaching, said Sullivan, “so this is something the United States should worry about. We need to be ready when that time comes.”
Specifically, the nation needs to significantly bolster its missile defense system (MDS), said the senator, who is currently a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and has 21 years of distinguished military and national security service.
“I think we need to make sure we can send a message that if this leader of this nation is unstable, and if he did try to launch one, or two or three ICBMs at the U.S., we can have the capability to say we will shoot those down with a much more robust missile defense system, and then we will massively retaliate.
“Even if you’re unstable — like he is — you might not like those odds. And that’s why missile defense is so important,” Sullivan said.
It’s quite possibly no coincidence that Kim’s so-called July 4 “gift” to Americans of an ICBM launch was targeted at Alaska, which plays a key role in U.S. missile defense.
Sullivan, an Alaskan attorney who served as the state’s Attorney General and Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources prior to joining the Senate in 2015, said the state constitutes “three pillars of America’s military might.”
“We are the air combat hub power for Asia Pacific and the Arctic,” he said, and the only location in the world having more than 100 F35s and F22s, which are 5th-generation fighters. “That’s a lot of firepower in a key strategic location.”
Alaska is a strategic platform for which expeditionary forces can be launched at a moment’s notice, he said, “again because of our strategic location,” which allows two active-duty Army brigades to make it from Alaska to the Korean peninsula in 7 to 8 hours.
The state is the nation’s MDS cornerstone, where a layered system operates across three main sites: Fort Greely Army Base in Fairbanks, the Alaska Air National Guard’s Clear Air Force Station, and Eareckson Air Station on the island of Shemya.
To broadly address MDS, Sullivan said the United States is finally starting to do a lot. For instance, the Pentagon is conducting a missile defense review aimed at strengthening the nation’s abilities, studying whether to place missile interceptor sites on the East Coast or in the Midwest, and recommending funding priorities. The report is due to Congress at the end of the year—timing that doesn’t sit well with Sullivan.
“We should not be waiting on that. Things are happening too quickly to wait for the Pentagon report to implement recommendations,” he said.
That’s why a year ago Sullivan said he started working on Advancing America’s Missile Defense Act of 2017, S. 1196, which he introduced May 22. The bill has input from a variety of industry experts, Pentagon officials, Heritage Foundation fellows and a host of others on how to upgrade and advance the nation’s ballistic MDS.
The bipartisan bill, which has 26 cosponsors, would fund a more integrated MDS, add new interceptors and sensors and increase research, while also establishing and funding a crucial space-based architecture to support missile defense in the United States and around the world, said Sullivan, who referred to the integration as “an unblinking eye.”
“We need space-based system to integrate our overall systems to provide the most capability and awareness for missile defense,” Sullivan said.
Even the Wall Street Journal agreed, saying in a June 26 editorial that “Mr. Sullivan’s missile-defense amendment would be a down payment on a safer America in an ever more dangerous world.”
Because North Koreans and other rogue leaders may not be rational actors who fear their own annihilation, the WSJ editors wrote, “U.S. leaders have a moral obligation to do more than let Kim Jong Un hold American cities hostage, and without defenses a pre-emptive military strike might be the only alternative.”
Following the markup of S. 1196 about a month ago, Sullivan said 85 percent of the bill now forms the base of the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets the budget and expenses for the U.S. Department of Defense. The NDAA is under consideration now by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Sullivan sits on.
With the looming North Korean threat, Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who recently revealed he has a brain tumor, planned to quickly advance the NDAA before leaving Washington on Monday for cancer treatments.
However, Sen. Paul Rand (R-KY) on Friday requested votes on his war authorization and indefinite detention amendments, effectively stalling the act in McCain’s committee until after the August recess and angering the Arizona senator in the process.
“It is unfortunate that one senator chose to block consideration of a bill our nation needs right now, the National Defense Authorization Act,” McCain said in a statement. “We must uphold our solemn obligation to provide for the common defense and give our men and women in uniform the training, equipment and resources they need to defend the nation.”
“We need to lead and we need to act now. North Koreans aren’t waiting and they need to see action from the U.S.,” Sullivan said Wednesday.
Nevertheless, he’s “very, very confident that final passage of NDAA will have robust missile defense components.” And if the Pentagon report ends up recommending more or doing something differently, Sullivan said lawmakers can always add to the NDAA.
And with an identical House bill (H.R. 2912) introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK) also included in the NDAA, “missile defense is strongly represented in the House and the Senate, so we have a good opportunity to advance it,” Sullivan said.
The nation is advancing politically, legislatively and with regards to testing of its missile defense system, he added.
“But we need to keep doing more because the North Koreans aren’t going to stop,” said Sullivan.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Friday morning’s ICBM launch by North Korea did not pose a threat to North America. However, in the face of these ongoing threats, America’s commitment to defending its allies “remains ironclad,” he said.
“We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies from any attack or provocation,” Davis said in a statement.