North Korea's Latest Launch Spurs U.S. Missile Tests, Flyovers

The United States has been ramping up exercises and diplomatic moves in response to worrying new developments out of Pyongyang.

Following news that the North Korean regime had conducted a test of what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile the United States military quickly responded with its own test to show that they could strike “deep in the heart” of the North Korean regime; the Air Force buzzed the regime with supersonic bombers; and the Missile Defense Agency conducted (pre-scheduled) test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system off the coast of Alaska.

About 10:40 a.m. Eastern time on Friday, North Korea launched a Hwasong-14 missile from Mupyong-ni that traveled “1,000km before splashing down in the Sea of Japan ,” according to  U.S. military spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis. The altitude that the missile reached, 3,725 km, suggests it was capable of hitting the continental United States. David Wright , a physicist and the director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists said that if the reported numbers were accurate then the North Koreans had succeeded in testing a missile with a range of more than 6,500 miles.

Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The test marked the second successful launch of an ICBM after a similar July 4 test.

The tests put added pressure on the Trump administration, which had vowed to keep Pyongyang from completing an ICBM. On Jan. 2, then-President-elect Donald Trump tweeted , “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!”

In response to North Korea’s Friday test, the U.S. Army and South Korea’s military fired off a test of their own: a South Korean Hyunmoo Missile II launched from the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS. In their press release, Army officials emphasized that North Korean targets were well within range of the systems. “The ATACMS can be rapidly deployed and engaged and provides deep-strike precision capability, enabling the ROK-U.S. Alliance to engage a full array of time-critical targets under all weather conditions,” the release said.

The U.S. military stepped up the intimidation efforts on Saturday when it scrambled two B-1 bombers out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. The jets were quickly joined by two Japanese Air Self Defense Force (Koku Jieitai) F-2 fighters. As the planes conducted a flyover above the Korean Peninsula, they were joined by four South Korean F-15 jets, then proceeded over Osan Air Base in South Korea. The purpose of the roughly ten-hour mission? “Intercept and formation training, enabling [the U.S. Japan and South Korea] to improve their combined capabilities and tactical skills,” according to a statement from Pacific Air Forces.

Stateside, officials with the Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, announced on Sunday that they had conducted a test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD system, a missile battery designed to shoot down mid-range missiles. The U.S. set up a similar THAAD system in South Korea in April. The timing of the previously-scheduled was fortuitous.

For the THAAD test, a U.S. C-17 dropped a medium-range target ballistic missile, which ignited in midair and flew to test altitude. The THAAD operators at Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska located, targeted, and destroyed the incoming missile. (See the video atop of this post.)

“In addition to successfully intercepting the target, the data collected will allow MDA to enhance the THAAD weapon system, our modeling and simulation capabilities, and our ability to stay ahead of the evolving threat,” MDA Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves said in a press release. Portions of the airspace over Alaska were shut down to conduct the tests, which is standard in interceptor tests of that type, according to a Defense Department official.

Of course, an ICBM capable of hitting the United States from North Korea is a very different threat than a mid-range missile that could only reach South Korea or Japan, the sort of missile that THAAD was designed to intercept.

To protect the mainland, the United States relies on Ground Based Interceptors, or GBIs, in Alaska and California. In May, the MDA tested the newest GBI version, using infrared satellite imagery and targeting data from sea-based radar. The U.S. plans to have 44 GBIs deployed by the end of the year, mostly in Alaska. While the most recent test was a success , the system has failed three of its last five tests.

"If the North Koreans fired everything they had at us, and we fired at all of the missiles, we’d probably get most of them," said Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies told Politico earlier in July.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. officials this weekend began a push for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to confront the issue. Last week Congress passed a sanctions package against North Korea, Iran, and Russia with enough votes to override a presidential veto. The effort had been in the works for months and was not a direct response to Friday’s ICBM test.