U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (ret.)
Patrick O’Reilly. (MDA)
(CNSNews.com) – Although Communist North Korea has threatened to attack the island of Guam — a U.S. territory in the Pacific — with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), a former top military official and missile expert told CNSNews.com he is confident that Guam can defend itself from such an attack.
“Guam is very heavily protected by missile defense systems at sea and also on the ground,” said retired Army Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly. “They are very proven missile defense systems.”
As for the four ICBMs—potentially containing mini-nuclear warheads—that North Korea has threatened to launch at the United States, O’Reilly said they do not constitute a major threat.
North Korea “would need an awful lot more than four [ICBMs] to be a serious threat to us,” he said.
North Korean ICBMs. (AP/VOA News)
What does Guam have to defend against ICBMs?
According to O’Reilly, a physicist who led the U.S. Missile Defense Administration (MDA) and has worked in the field for more than 30 years, there are two missile defense systems (MDS) in and around Guam that will shield the U.S. island territory from attacks.
One of them is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a land-based system currently deployed in Guam.
The MDA’s website states that THAAD is “highly effective” against asymmetric ballistic missiles both inside and outside the atmosphere. The system uses hit-to-kill technology to destroy a warhead, which could potentially be inside of North Korea’s ICBMs.
Below are some elements in THAAD as presented by the MDA’s website:
- Launcher: Truck-mounted, highly-mobile, able to be stored; interceptors can be fired and rapidly reloaded.
- Interceptors: Eight per launcher.
- Radar: Largest air-transportable X-band radar in the world searches, tracks, and discriminates objects and provides updated tracking data to the interceptor.
- Fire Control: Communication and data-management backbone links THAAD components together; links THAAD to external command.
The site also states that THADD has successfully intercepted 15 out of 15 missiles in current program testing.
The other line of defense, O’Reilly said, is the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system mounted on Navy ships. These Aegis ships patrol the Pacific Ocean around Guam, and detect and track ballistic missiles of all ranges, including intercontinental ones.
They then either directly prepare standard missiles—called SM-2 or SM-3—for a direct interception or cue inland ground-based interceptors, including 42 in Alaska and 6 in California.
As of December 2014, there were 16 Aegis ships in the Pacific Ocean.
How does it work?
If North Korea were to shoot four ICBMs at Guam, O’Reilly said the Aegis system would be the first, and the one with more fire power between the two defense systems, to intercept the ballistic missiles before they get close to the island.
One interceptor fired at a ballistic missile does not mean immediate destruction of that missile, it usually takes multiple interceptors to dismantle just one, he said.
“It’s a probability thing. If you want to save your missiles, you shoot one at a very long distance and if it’s successful then you’re done, or you can take a shot with a few more,” O’Reilly said.
The THAAD missile defense system. (The National Interest)
A combined effort between Aegis and THAAD, which O’Reilly called a layered defense, would present multiple opportunities to shoot down North Korea’s missiles.
“THAAD knows if Aegis has been successful and if not, then THAAD takes its own shots. Depending on the range, THAAD may have multiple shots itself,” O’Reilly said. “So we have a large number of interceptors.”
Fear or no fear?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared in a press briefing following the threat from North Korea, saying, “I think Americans can sleep well at night and have no concerns about [North Korea’s] particular rhetoric over the past few days.”
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (ret.) Patrick O’Reilly. (C-SPAN screenshot.)
“The United States has the capability to fully defend itself from many attacks and defend our allies and we will do so,” he said.
O’Reilly disagrees with the way several news outlets, including CNN, Politico and Market Watch interpreted Tillerson’s statement as he is “downplaying” the threat from North Korea. He believes the Secretary was being “realistic.”
“Tillerson was not downplaying the threat,” O’Reilly said. “He was taking into account our capability, which is our missile defense capability for Guam is very high.”
The AEGIS missile defense system being tested. (missiledefenseadvocacy.org)
O’Reilly also said one can start to understand why the Secretary of State has some confidence in the command in the Pacific simply by taking a look at the diagrams displayed on MDA’s website.
He also mentioned MDA’s new $523 million contract with Raytheon to build 47 Standard Missiles (SM)-3, such as those used on Aegis ships.
“There is a certain criterion that the missiles have to prove that it works well enough before you start production contracts. So the Aegis system is very capable,” O’Reilly said.