North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests — including the most recent one, in 2017, which U.S. officials suspect involved a hydrogen bomb — in addition to multiple intercontinental ballistic missile tests. By most accounts, the nation is close to demonstrating an ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear warhead atop one of those ICBMs.
“North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” the nuclear weapons strategy that the Trump administration released in February said. “North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.”
The U.S. intelligence community’s worldwide threat assessment, published the same month, said North Korea would be “among the most volatile and confrontational (weapons of mass destruction) threats to the United States over the next year.”
The roughly $700 billion Pentagon budget includes a number of programs aimed at countering the threat of a North Korean missile, possibly carrying a nuclear warhead, hitting the United States or its allies.
For example, the Trump administration is bolstering the military’s missile defense capabilities with billions of dollars in new funding primarily on account of the expanding threat emanating from North Korea.
Last November, Trump made an urgent request for an additional $4 billion from Congress to fund “efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies or partners.” Congress ultimately appropriated some $11.5 billion to the Missile Defense Agency for the fiscal year, the largest amount on record when adjusted for inflation.
The White House request last fall said the extra money would go in part to constructing ground-based interceptors in Alaska aimed at shooting down North Korean missiles. The request also said the money would enhance radar, missile detection and intelligence capabilities, and help procure new Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Aegis SM-3 missile interceptors, citing the advancing North Korea threat.
The Pentagon is also focused in part on enhancing the U.S. military’s ability to defeat North Korean missiles before launch — a strategy known in military parlance as “missile defeat” or “left of launch.”
The Trump administration’s new missile defense policy, which was supposed to come out earlier this year but has been delayed for months, is likely to detail the technologies the military hopes to pursue to counter North Korean nuclear missile threats.
Trump said North Korea is “no longer” a nuclear threat, but he did not say the country no longer poses a missile threat. The missile defenses his administration is bolstering take aim at missiles regardless of whether they are carrying nuclear or conventional warheads.
But the urgency with which the Pentagon has sought to bolster the missile defense budget stems largely from the possibility that one of North Korea’s missiles could arrive on American shores with a nuclear warhead attached.
Both the Senate and House versions of this year’s annual defense policy bill fully authorize the $9.9 billion the Trump administration has requested for the Missile Defense Agency in the coming fiscal year. The bill has passed the House and is under consideration in the Senate.
In its overview requesting the funds, the Missile Defense Agency specifically cited the North Korean nuclear threat as a driving factor.
“Nearly all of our adversaries are concerned with U.S. missile defenses and are devising various means aimed at complicating missile defense operations,” the agency wrote. “North Korea is committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.”