By Seth M.M. Stodder
Earlier this summer, Panamanian authorities discovered parts of a
missile system hidden in a ship traveling from Cuba to North Korea.
The incident underscores two important points about North Korea.
First, one of America’s most unpredictable enemies is committed to
developing and distributing missile technology. More disturbing still,
the totalitarian nation is capable of transporting weapons in the
In recent years, the threat of a missile strike from adversarial
regimes like North Korea as well as non-state terrorist actors has
become more acute. In light of these developments, it’s imperative
that the United States and its allies continue to invest in missile
The North Korean government has been working to improve its missile
capabilities for decades. The nation began developing tactical
artillery rockets in the 1960s and 70s and moved on to short- and
medium-range missiles in the 1980s and 90s.
Last December, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into
orbit using long-range missile technology known as Taepodong-2. A
fully functioning Taepodong-2 missile is capable of reaching the
United States. And in April, the Defense Intelligence Agency announced
that North Korea likely has a nuclear weapon small enough to deliver
with a ballistic missile.
What makes North Korea’s missile program even more dangerous is that,
for years, the country has supplied ballistic missiles to Iran and
other American adversaries. According to the Council on Foreign
Relations, Pyongyang has made hundreds of millions of dollars in
recent years exporting ballistic missiles to such countries as Syria —
a country in the midst of a civil war, and that has apparently used
chemical weapons — as well as other nations known for supporting
terrorists and other enemies of the United States.
The Panama episode is merely the latest example of Pyongyang’s efforts
to help anti-American regimes improve their missile capabilities.
For the United States and its allies to remain secure in a world where
oppressive regimes and terrorist organizations have greater and
greater access to sophisticated ballistic missiles, a strong system of
missile defense is an absolute necessity.
In the last three decades, research into missile defense technologies
has yielded remarkable results.
Just this year, American military personnel teamed up with Israeli
defense forces to successfully test cutting-edge interceptors over the
Mediterranean Sea. Shortly after that, the U.S. Navy’s shield program
intercepted a fast-moving test target over the Pacific Ocean.
Back in the 1980s, when missile defense was first considered by the
United States, many skeptics believed that destroying an enemy missile
mid-flight was a pipe dream. Today, they’ve been definitively proven
wrong. One shield program alone — the Patriot Air Defense Missile
System — has completed more than 2,500 successful search and track
tests. The Patriot is just one part of the U.S. Missile Defense
Agency’s proven “family of systems.”
As the missiles available to unfriendly regimes and terrorist groups
become more advanced, so too must systems for defending against those
missiles. It’s for this reason that the Department of Defense is
currently looking for new, more effective ways to intercept missiles,
whether by making use of unmanned aerial drones or even relying on
spaced-based assets that can sense and destroy incoming threats.
Given the major threats on the international scene, investments in
these and other technologies for strengthening American missile
defense aren’t just prudent — they’re essential.
The United States and its allies must be prepared for the unique
security challenges we will face in the coming years. While North
Korea’s latest plot may have been foiled, the proliferation of ever
more powerful missile systems will continue. We must be prepared.
Seth M.M. Stodder teaches national security law at the University of
Southern California Law School and is a partner at Obagi & Stodder