by Grady Noll
| February 21, 2018
North Korea’s newest nuclear missile, the Hwasong-15, is now able to reach the continental United States. The global community has condemned missile testing, and President Trump has stated that North Korea will be met with “fire and fury” should the country threaten the US. And the situation only continues to escalate as Trump and Kim Jong Un trade barbs over the size of their nuclear launch buttons. As expected, many of our friends and family members (along with everyone else) have started to worry about the prospect of nuclear war. But we can ease our worries a little if we contextualize the North Korean threat by understanding the United States’ defense efforts and the relative cost of both countries’ weapon systems.
Let’s start by reviewing the operational basics so we can assess the seriousness of a North Korean missile threat. Because of its extended operating range, the Hwasong-15 is categorized as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). To reach far-off targets, the ICBM uses similar technology to what you would find in a multi-stage space rocket. Using rockets, the missile builds up speed until it reaches the apex in its parabolic trajectory, which goes beyond Earth’s atmosphere. A reentry vehicle then carries the nuclear warhead to its designated target, often reaching speeds of around Mach 20, or 20 times the speed of sound and 7 times the speed of our fastest aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird.
Depending on the missile, it’s also possible to have multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), meaning multiple warheads can be carried at once and multiple targets can be hit at once. However, many reports state that North Korea has not yet achieved the ability to incorporate MIRVs, so we should envision the current Hwasong-15 as a unitary ICBM with potential decoys. It’s estimated to have about a 250 kiloton yield1 based on 2017 tests, which is over 10 times the yield of what was used in WWII.
To simulate a doomsday scenario, we need to research what would happen to our most populous city, New York City, if it were targeted. According to NUKEMAP, a nuclear bomb simulation model created by nuclear weapons historian Alex Wellerstein of the Stevens Institute of Technology, if we assume maximum airburst and maintain the recommended defaults, NYC could expect around 1.19 million deaths and 1.88 million injuries, totaling over 3 million casualties.
But here’s the good news. So far, North Korea has made only one ICBM that can theoretically reach the US, and it hasn’t been completed due to complications with reentry vehicles. In order to combat the prospect of nuclear war, the United States has invested $154 billion2 over the last two decades on a multi-layered defense system. The US Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) consists of four missile intercept systems:
Each system utilizes supersonic missiles containing kinetic energy warheads and each is guided by advanced radar systems to ensure that the target is destroyed. These four systems are launched with the intent of intercepting the target at different phases of its trajectory. The Aegis program consists of ship-based missiles scattered throughout the Pacific, the GMD has interceptors stationed in Alaska and California, and the THAAD and PAC programs can be stationed anywhere. The GMD and new versions of the Aegis missiles serve as the main defense against incoming ICBMs, but THAAD and PAC could theoretically be used in emergency situations.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) keeps a record of how the interceptors in the BMDS perform under test conditions. According to a May 2017 MDA report, Aegis has a 35 for 42 success record (83%), GMD has a 10 for 18 success record (56%), THAAD has a 13 for 13 success record (100%) and PAC-3 has a 25 for 29 success record (86%). However, we should note several things before proceeding. Not too much information is publicly known about the tests, other than the fact that we have only recently started tests on ICBM missiles and that some of the missiles that represented intermediate type can reach speeds similar to that of an ICBM. For ICBM tests that would be considered legitimate, the GMD was successful in its attempt and the new Aegis missiles have had one success and two failures, one of which was due to a sailor accidentally hitting the self-destruct button. This means that the performance of the new Aegis missiles may not be as poor as what is indicated. The Aegis success record is now 35 for 44 (79.5%). We should remember, however, that these successes are achieved under test conditions, so these interceptors will not perform exactly the same way in a real scenario, but since this is the best data available, we will proceed with it. With this updated data, we can conclude that for a missile to get through the likely response of two Aegis missiles and four GMDs, the chances are somewhere between 0.158% and 1.683% depending on which tests the reader considers valid. The chances may be reduced further if the THAAD and PAC systems are strategically placed to protect likely targets. Data gathered by the cost research team suggests the US has an arsenal of 284 Aegis missiles, 44 GMD missiles, 260 THAAD missiles and 2500 PAC-3 missiles with more scheduled for procurement in the future. But for now, we have more than enough in our arsenal to deal with at least a dozen nuclear missile attacks.
When discussing the possibility of North Korea instigating a war, we should also address the concept of nuclear deterrence. The United States has close to 7,000 nuclear warheads,4 with those on many ICBMs ranging in strength from 100 to 475 kilotons of yield. The ICBMs in the US arsenal have MIRVs and can carry up to 8 warheads, meaning the total destructive power ranges from 800 to 3,800 kilotons or 3 to 15 times the power of the Hwasong-15. If you’re curious, you can plug these values into NUKEMAP to see the difference between both countries’ destructive potential.
Now, let’s look at the situation from a cost perspective by estimating the Hwasong-15’s cost based on its weight and calculate the total cost of a North Korean ICBM program that could exhaust the arsenal of the United States BMDS.
But how much would it cost the United States to build up its defenses in order to address additional North Korean missiles? The US spends at least $600 billion, or 3 to 4% of the annual GDP, each year on the military.8 Using the PRICE TruePlanning® Templates, we can expect the GMD interceptors (which are still technically in development) to cost around $70 million each, the THAAD and Aegis missiles to cost $11 to 12 million each and the PAC-3 missiles to cost $5 million each. The Block IIA Aegis missiles are now currently estimated at $30 million each based on recent contracts. If the US wanted to address each nuclear missile from North Korea with 2 new Aegis missiles and 4 GMD interceptors, we can estimate the cost to be around $22.4 billion—in other words, a mere drop in the bucket and well within a normal year-to-year cost fluctuation for the US military. Adding these new missiles could be done without any noticeable shift to the American standard of living. It should be noted that the United States also has enough military funding to consider incorporating lasers to innovate defenses in the ICBM boost phase, so the investment in additional missile interceptors might not be needed in the near future.
When you’re armed with all the details, it becomes much easier to put scary situations into perspective. In this case, we were able to bring some clarity to the possibility of a nuclear war scenario, which helps us make our own informed judgements about North Korea’s plans, the United States BMDS and the best course of action for both parties moving forward. Let us know your thoughts about the North Korean nuclear threat in the comments below.
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