(CNSNews.com) – As the Pentagon prepares for the first time to test the U.S. ability to intercept and destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in flight, North Korea has again threatened to target the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons.
Responding to reports that a U.S. Navy carrier group in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula is to be joined in the area by a second one, Pyongyang’s mouthpiece KCNA news agency said that joint military exercises involving two carrier strike groups “will only make the DPRK’s nuclear weapons target the mainland of the U.S.”
Another regime organ, the Rodong Sinmun, added Monday that the DPRK – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name – “is fully ready to counter any form of war, operation and combat the U.S. imperialists want to choose.”
It warned that the North Korean military had the will “to make the enemy sustain the most terrible horror and bitterest defeat on their mainland” in the event of a confrontation.
Earlier, the U.S. Navy announced that the USS Ronald Reagan, the only forward-deployed carrier, had set sail after a maintenance period at its base at Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, for patrols in the Western Pacific.
The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group has been in the region since being deployed there on President Trump’s orders last month amid an ongoing series of North Korean missile tests.
Having two nuclear-powered Nimitz class carriers and their accompanying vessels in the Western Pacific at the same time would be a significant although not unprecedented show of force. (It has also now been reported that a third carrier, the USS Nimitz, will be heading to the Western Pacific with its strike group in the coming days.)
Vice President Mike Pence, in an address to personnel on the Ronald Reagan flight deck last month, pledged that “the United States will strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific.”
North Korea early Monday carried out yet another ballistic missile launch – at least the 11th this year and the third since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office on May 10. Unlike the previous two medium-range missile launches on May 13 and 21, Monday’s was believed to be a short-range Scud-class projectile. It landed inside Japan’s exclusive maritime economic zone.
The U.S. and the world are waiting for North Korea to test an ICBM, following Kim Jong-un’s declaration in a televised new year speech in January that preparations for test-firing one had “entered the final stage.”
Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the North Koreans are learning with every test.
He said the key element Pyongyang has yet to master is to ensure a missile survives reentry into the atmosphere, “but that’s really a matter of trial and error.”
“They understand the physics; it’s just the matter of design.”
“Let me be clear on this point,” Stewart said. “If left on its current trajectory, the regime will ultimately succeed in fielding a nuclear-armed missile capable of threatening the United States homeland.”
“While nearly impossible to predict when this capability will be operational,” he added, “the North Korean regime is committed and is on a pathway where this capability is inevitable.”
On Tuesday, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency was expected to carry out a test of its ground-based midcourse defense system (GMD), for the first time trialing its ability to detect and destroy an incoming ICBM rather than other types of missiles.
The GMD architecture includes ground-based interceptors based at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California and Fort Greely, Alaska, designed primarily to deal with threats from North Korea.
The test is expected to entail a missile with ICBM characteristics being launched from the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands. From Vandenberg, more than 4,500 miles away, an interceptor will then be launched with the aim of shooting it down.
Previous GMD tests, with non-ICBM target missiles, have had a mixed record – nine out of 17 attempts since October 1999 have succeeded, with the most recent, in June 2014, a success following three consecutive failures between January 2010 and July 2013.
By contrast, AEGIS shipborne ballistic missile defense shield tests have had a higher success rate, 35 successful intercepts in 42 attempts between 2002 and last December.
And the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, recently deployed in South Korea for the first time, has a 13 out of 13 test intercept success rate between 2006 and 2015.