US military considers shooting down North Korea missile tests, sources say

As Pentagon looks for strategies to pressure into denuclearization, officials worry that intercepting missiles could escalate tensions and risk war

The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which includes Aegis-equipped destroyers, is headed for the Korean peninsula in anticipation of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.

The US military is considering shooting down North Korean missile tests as a show of strength to Pyongyang, two sources briefed on the planning have told the Guardian.

Amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, the Pentagon is looking for ways short of war to pressure the country into denuclearization, particularly if Pyongyang goes forward with a sixth nuclear test.

Defense secretary James Mattis has briefed Congress on the option, but the military has not yet decided to intercept a test missile.

One US official said the prospective shoot-down strategy would be aimed at occurring after a nuclear test, with the objective being to signal Pyongyang that the US can impose military consequences for a step Donald Trump has described as “unacceptable”.

On a visit to South Korea this week, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, warned Pyongyang against testing Trump’s “resolve”, and declared an end to Obama’s “strategic patience” policy.

But North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, told the BBC that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. All-out war would ensue if the US took military action, he said.

Experts and former officials said shooting down a North Korean missile during a test would risk an escalation that Washington might not be able to control, which would risk potentially devastating consequences to allies South Korea and Japan.

“I would see such an action as escalatory, but I couldn’t guess how Kim Jong-un would interpret it,” said Abraham Denmark, the senior Pentagon policy official for Asia in Barack Obama’s administration.

“But I would be concerned he would feel the need to react strongly, as he would not want to appear weak.”

Both sources said the military was not considering the use of a high-profile missile-defense system the US is providing to South Korea, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad). Thaad’s 200km range and sophisticated radar have unnerved China, whose president, Xi Jinping, has been coaxed by Trump into pressuring North Korea.

An operational Thaad installation is unlikely before 9 May, when South Koreans vote for a new president.

Instead, both sources said the military was looking at attempting a missile shoot-down with an Aegis missile-defense system aboard a US navy destroyer; or by convincing Japan to use its own missile-defense capabilities against a ballistic missile test traversing Japanese waters.

The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which includes Aegis-equipped destroyers, is headed for the Korean peninsula.

Several previous US administrations have considered shooting down North Korean missile tests, only to reject the option after considering the possible consequences of provoking an unpredictable and bellicose adversary.

Senior Pentagon officials considering the shoot-down option are said to have conceded they are unsure how North Korea would respond.

Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures and all options are on the table.

“North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs represent a clear, grave threat to U.S. national security. North Korea openly states that its ballistic missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons to strike cities in the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan.”

A US official said the military was discussing a potential shoot-down ahead of Trump’s meeting with Xi on 6 April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The discussion also preceded a military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday, in which North Korea displayed new intercontinental ballistic missiles and anti-ship missiles, as well as a failed test-launch on Sunday.

Another factor complicating a shoot-down would be the risk of embarrassment should Aegis interceptors miss a North Korean target, which might embolden Pyongyang and unnerve US regional allies.

Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, agreed that failure to bring down a missile would give North Korea a “psychological advantage”.

Cronin said the US was “far more likely to try to jam a missile test to ensure it does not fly far from the peninsula”.

US military officials are said to have been deeply disturbed after being taken by surprise at a North Korean missile launch in February. The commander in charge of US nuclear weapons, Air Force general John Hyten, recently told the Senate that the 11 February test was staged “out of a place we’d never seen before”.

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