What’s worse than not shooting down a missile? Trying to shoot down a missile and failing.
DefenseOne.com posted a recent article that explored that scenario with regard to the North Korean medium-range missile that sailed over Japanese territory:
The United States has 33 Aegis warships (three more are slated to arrive next year) that can launch an interceptor to hit a mid- or intermediate-range missile like the Hwasong-12 that North Korea sent over Hokkaido. Sixteen of those warships are currently in the Pacific.
Given the saber-rattling from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who promised to intercept any missile headed toward Guam, none of those 16 warships took any action whatsoever against the recent missile test. The official reason was that the missile posed no threat to the United States. But DefenseOne suspects a different reason:
Anti-missile interceptors like the ones on U.S. warships are designed to hit enemy missiles as they reach peak altitude — in the case of the Hwasong-12, that’s above 3,500 kilometers. The United States has demonstrated that it can intercept mid-range and slightly higher intermediate-range missile. But the test record includes embarrassing and recent failures.
Between January 2002 and August 14 of this year, the Defense Department attempted 37 intercepts of a mid-range missile and hit the target 29 times with an SM-3. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest, according to the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Testing and Engineering, is that realistic testing of interceptors is very expensive and requires a lot of lead time and support.
There are other factors to consider here, too. North Korea insisted that shooting down a missile over the sea would be considered an act of war, which may have been the reason why there was no intercept, according to Tom Karako, senior fellow and missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said, as quoted in the article:
If we are going to shoot at something, we will do it like we mean it. But there has to be a good reason to do it. That reason might be if there is an actual threat to the U.S., its forces, or our allies. Or it might be if the U.S. or Japan adopts a policy to intercept certain types of missiles or those on certain kinds of trajectory. But that would have to be a deliberate policy choice.
Certainly that’s a valid concern, although it would be disastrous if the United States were to make such a deliberate policy choice and prove unable to carry it through.
In this handout image provide by South Korean Defense Ministry, South Korea’s F-15K fighter jets and U.S. marine’s F-35B fly over the Korean Peninsula during a training on August 31, 2017, in Gangwon-do, South Korea. U.S. and South Korea also operated air-to-ground strike drill in response to North Korea’s ballistic missile launch which flied over Northern Japan on August 29. Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images.)