Two modified Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) Block IV interceptors are launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70) during a Missile Defense Agency test to intercept a short-range ballistic missile target June 5, 2008 in the Pacific Ocean west of Kauai, Hawaii. The missile, one of two launched, intercepted the target approximately 12 miles high on the Pacific Missile Range Facility. This was the second of two successful intercepts of the sea-based terminal capability and the fourteenth overall successful test of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program.

According to a report in The New York Times, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Tuesday that North Korea is becoming “a direct threat to the United States” and was within five years of developing a missile with the potential of hitting Alaska or the West Coast. The Times adds: “Mr. Gates’ new assessment on North Korea is a significant shift for the Obama administration, which until now has viewed Pyongyang as a proliferation threat, fearing that it might sell its existing missiles and nuclear devices to other countries, like Iran.”

This is a welcome admission by the Obama administration. Heritage Foundation Northeast Asia Senior Research Fellow Bruce Klingner wrote just last week:

In November 2010, Pyongyang disclosed a previously covert uranium enrichment facility at the Yongbyon nuclear site. Previously, Yongbyon only housed a plutonium nuclear facility. Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, was shown an extensive array of 2,000 centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium. The U.S. scientist commented that he was stunned by the size and sophistication of the facility, which exceeded all predictions of North Korean progress on a uranium program.

Critics charged that the U.S. intelligence assess­ments were partisan fabrications of the Bush Administration, but Hecker’s direct observations of the uranium enrichment facility provide irrefut­able evidence of Pyongyang’s continuing efforts to develop parallel uranium and plutonium paths to a nuclear arsenal.

Klingner recommends the U.S. should:

  • Restore $1.4 billion that the Obama Administra­tion cut from the missile defense budget.
  • Reinstate the original plan to field 44 ground-based midcourse defense interceptors in Alaska and California, rather than follow the Obama Administration’s revised plans to deploy only 30 interceptors.
  • Bolster the Aegis ballistic missile defense pro­gram to accelerate and expand both the develop­ment and procurement of the Aegis weapons system and the SM-3 family of interceptors.
  • Accelerate development of ship-based intercep­tors and the associated fire control software. Upgraded fire control software should then be reinforced by a broader command and control system optimized to support the Aegis system’s access to off-board sensor data.
  • Expand procurement of Standard Missiles beyond current Navy plans to procure 300 SM-3s by 2015. For an additional $170 million, the Navy could accelerate production of these inter­ceptors and build a larger inventory.
  • Give U.S. sea-based SM-3s the ability to intercept long-range missiles in the ascent phase of flight before they can release decoys that may confuse or overwhelm the defense.
  • Fund development of smaller and lighter kill vehicles for the SM-3 interceptors. Increasing the speed of the SM-3 interceptors will expand their capabilities, enabling them to protect larger areas, engage long-range missiles, and intercept missiles in the ascent phase.
  • Invest in research and construction of a space test bed for missile defense. Space-based interceptors may prove to be the most effective and reliable way to counter future-generation missiles.
  • Resurrect the Airborne Laser, Multiple Kill Vehi­cle, and Kinetic Energy Interceptor programs.
  • Consider Seoul’s request to remove the 300-kilo­meter limit on South Korean offensive ballistic missile development to enable South Korean forces to strike any North Korean target from any South Korean deployment area.