The estimable Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has provided a bit of clarity regarding North Korea's impending missile launch, and a potential U.S. military response.
In today's edition of the Times, Gertz reports that the U.S. has activated its limited missile defense sites in Alaska and California, apparently in reaction to developments in North Korea. According to unnamed Pentagon officials, the U.S. has 9 interceptor missiles in Alaska, and two others at Vandenburg AFB in California, deployed to provide some protection against a limited missile attack. Deployment of the missiles began about two years ago, but efforts to make the sites operational apparently took on added urgency, due to North Korea's expected launch of a TD-2 missile that can reach much of the CONUS, depending on the variant employed.
Defense department officials refuse to speculate as to whether the U.S. might attempt to shoot down the missile, but that option is clearly on the table. In addition to the interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, the U.S. Navy has deployed AEGIS-equipped vessels to the Sea of Japan. Some of these vessels are being modified to provide a mid-course and terminal ballistic missile defense capability. However, the Pentagon has not revealed if any of these ships are on station near the North Korean coast, and could provide an additional intercept capability.
A decision on engaging the missile would be made at the highest levels of government, probably by the President himself. However, the window for making such a decision is predictably small, and dependent (in large part) on an accurate intelligence assessment of North Korean intentions. Pyongyang has indicated that the TD-2 will be used for a space launch, rather than a missile test. From a legal perspective, the U.S. might be on shaky ground if it interrupts the legitimate launch of satellite; on the other hand, the U.S. has an inherent right to defend itself from a ballistic missile heading in the general direction of our territory.
Judging from Gertz's article, it appears the U.S. has been unable to clearly identify the purpose behind the TD-2 test, forcing us to prepare for both scenarios. If we can ascertain that the TD-2 is being used to launch a satellite, we will probably let the test proceed; if it is determined that the launch is an ICBM test, the probability of an intercept attempt increases dramatically. Determining North Korea's intentions has likely been complicated by Pyongyang's proficiency at denial and deception. It is certainly in Kim Jong-il's interest to keep Washington guessing, delaying any engagement decision to the last possible moment.
How would North Korea react to a U.S. attempt at engaging their missile? That's the $64,000 question. Beyond the usual propaganda barrage and diplomatic bluster, Pyongyang might employ some military options of its own, ranging from the intercept of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft near its borders, to the engagement of ROK naval forces along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime extension of the DMZ. Potential warning time for these events would be limited, given that much of North Korea's armed forces are positioned along their coastlines, or near the DMZ.
Ironically, one factor limiting a military response is the DPRK's bankrupt economy and inefficient agricultural sector. This time of year, most North Korean military units are engaged in agricultural activities, assisting farmers with this year's rice crop (it's one of the few ways North Korean units can a food supply for the winter months). With most soldiers, airmen and sailors in the field (literally), military readiness is typically low, inhibiting a larger-scale response, such as a limited attack across the DMZ. However, North Korea remains able to launch more limited strikes, including naval attacks along the NLL, or the engagement of U.S. aircraft near its territory.