The eyes of the world remain focused on North Korea, and the seemingly imminent test of a TD-2 long-range missile. Senior U.S. officials told The New York Times that preparations for a launch are largely complete, including fueling of the missile. It is still unclear whether the TD-2 on the launch pad is a two-stage variant (which can threaten much of the Pacific Basin) or the three-stage version, capable of hitting much of the United States with a small payload.
At this juncture, a launch window for the TD-2 may hinge on environmental factors, notably weather conditions. Anyone who's followed NASA rocket and shuttle launches over the past few decades understands that a number of factors must be "green" for lift-off to occur. On the technical side, there are a number of potential problems that could impede a test launch, ranging from missile propellant and guidance systems, to range communications. So far, there have been no reports of apparent problems with the TD-2 test, and launch preparations appear to be on track. However, technical glitches can happen at literally any moment--both before and after launch.
From an environmental perspective, such factors as surface weather conditions, low altitude winds, and upper level winds must all be within acceptable parameters for launch. I'm not a meterologist, and haven't followed weather reports from that region. But I'm sure an enterprising blogger (or two) could track down weather observations from the area, and (perhaps) compare it with established parameters for ICBM tests. Since the TD-2 is based on old technology, it probably has a smaller "weather window" than newer U.S., Russian and Chinese systems, which have greater tolerance for wind conditions and weather. Officially, North Korea won't say why they haven't launched the TD-2 (so far), so my suppositions are little more than speculation, at this point.
Also unresolved is the issue of how the U.S. might respond to the North Korean missile launch. In a recent press briefing, DOD spokesman Bryan Whitman characterized the event as a "launch" rather than a test. According to Whitman, a "test" would imply that we know Pyongyang's intentions. "We don't know the intentions," he observed.
Whitman also refused to speculate as to whether the U.S. might use its limited ballistic missile defenses to engage the TD-2 after launch. The ballistic missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska has up to 15 interceptor missiles, designed to provide a limited capability against a North Korean-style threat. The site is believed to be at least partly operational. Additionally, the U.S. Navy has conducted successful tests with Aegis-equipped vessels, using specially-modified SM-2 Block IV surface-to-air missiles to engage ballistic missiles in mid-course. There are several Aegis cruisers and destroyers currently operating in the Sea of Japan (near the NK test area), but it is unclear if any of these vessels have the necessary computer software or Block IV SM-2s to engage the TD-2 after lift-off.
Publicly, the U.S. is conducting high-level negotiations with regional partners, aimed at dissuading North Korea from launching the TD-2. Those talks will produce a consensus that Pyongyang should refrain from launching the missile, but little else. At this juncture, North Korea remains committed to the launch, and will not bow to pressure from the U.S. (or anyone else). According to Kim Jong-il's strategic calculus, the DPRK has more to gain by launching the missile, and demonstrating its ability to strike targets far beyond northeast Asia. In fact, Pyongyang will probably follow the launch with a "wish list" for re-entering missile test ban protocols.
If this technique sounds vaguely familar, remember the Agreed To framework brokered by Jimmy Carter in 1994. Tha agreement, you'll recall, was supposed to end North Korea's nuclear program, in exchange for South Korean nuclear reactors, U.S. oil deliveries and security guarantees. Washington and Seoul kept their end of the bargain, while Pyongyang maintained a covert research program that eventually produced nuclear weapons. North Korea views its missile and WMD programs as guarantors of state security, and will do whatever it takes to preserve them--even if it means entering another sham deal after the TD-2 launch is concluded.
As the world watches the North Korean missile site, one element is strangely absent from the debate. For the past 20 years, the notion of ballistic missile defense has been dismissed as fantasy by critics, mostly on the left. Now, as North Korea prepares to launch a missile capable of striking much of North America, the wisdom of Ronald Reagan's original vision has been finally affirmed. Mr. Reagan understood that rogue states with theater-range missiles in the 1980s could eventually attain ICBM technology. North Korea has reached that threshhold, and other pariah nations, including Iran and Syria, will gain that capability within the next decade. Critics still deride the notion of BMD, but as North Korea prepares to fire a long-range missile, we should ask ourselves: are we better off with at least a limited defensive capability, or no defenses at all. If the liberals had carried the debate, our defense against the TD-2 would (literally) be no defense at all.