As TV ratings roll in for Super Bowl 50, a globally-minded NFL boasts that the game was broadcast to viewers in more than 170 countries. North Korean ballistic missile technicians were apparently not among them. They were busy with a Super Sunday of their own, preparing a long-range missile launch with a satellite in the payload bay -- just the place a nuclear weapon might someday sit.
The North Korean missile launch took place roughly one hour before kickoff. In fact, the satellite itself passed directly over Levi's Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl, about an hour after the game ended. Whatever else may be said about Kim Jong Un, you have to acknowledge the North Korean leader's flair for the dramatic.
With an estimated range of 9,000 kilometers, North Korea's newest missile brings Alaska, half of Canada and a swath of the United States from Southern California to Minnesota under its bullseye. And the launch comes just one month after North Korea's underground detonation of what Pyongyang claimed was its first test of a hydrogen bomb -- a doubly-dangerous advance, as H-bombs are both magnitudes more powerful than atomic bombs, and far more easily miniaturized.
In the United States, the tests have triggered calls for new and tighter sanctions, perhaps another U.N. resolution, and increased moral suasion on China -- North Korea's only ally -- to rein in "Respected Comrade Kim."
In North Korea's neighborhood, key U.S. allies are looking for something a bit more robust than a U.N. pronouncement to protect them from Kim's nuclear arsenal.
The United States and South Korea announced immediate discussions on deploying the U.S.-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, on U.S. military bases in and around Seoul. Japan deployed an American Patriot PAC-3 missile defense system in downtown Tokyo days before the North Korean launch. Japan already deploys ship-based Aegis systems -- again, U.S.-made -- to provide first-line upper-atmosphere defense.
America's Asian allies aren't alone in their interest in missile defense. In the Middle East, the United States has contributed upwards of $1.5 billion to help Israel develop and field Iron Dome for terminal defense, with additional funds for David's Sling and Arrow, providing mid-range and high-altitude protection.
The game theory of missile defense
Ironically, the United States itself relies less on the very defense systems its allies seek than on a theory that holds missile defense itself to be the true danger. Aside from a handful of THAAD batteries, including installations in Hawaii and Guam, plus a total of 30 Ground-Based-Interceptor missiles split between Fort Greely, Alaska, and California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, the U.S. missile defense effort is largely an RDT&E project.
It wasn't always this way. Long before Nike was a shoe, it was a site -- 265 anti-missile Nike Sites, as they were dubbed, dotted the American landscape in the early 1960s, arrayed to engage Soviet nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles on their Arctic flight path toward American targets. The means was brute force: The original Nike was itself nuclear-armed, exploding in the exo-atmosphere to vaporize incoming Soviet missiles by thermal flux.
As the need to detonate a nuclear missile to defeat a nuclear attack attests, the desire to defend was greater than the technology itself. The challenge of "hitting a bullet with a bullet" also ran headlong into a theoretical objection to missile defense, rooted in game theory: Missile defense wasn't just ineffective, it was downright dangerous.
Missile defense was linked to an offensive counter-force strategy -- U.S missiles would strike Soviet missile sites, depleting the counter-strike, which would make the task of missile defense exponentially easier. The notion of missile defense, therefore, came to be provocative -- it raised the prospect of the real use of nuclear weapons. Perhaps it was better to be defenseless -- naked against nuclear attack -- which would give both sides, the U.S. and the Soviet, the best of existential reasons to never initiate an attack. Such was the logic of M.A.D. -- Mutual Assured Destruction.
As the Americans and Soviets entered the arms control era, missile defense came to be seen as trade-bait -- a questionable capability to be swapped for the main prize, nuclear weapons reductions -- culminating in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Under the treaty's terms, both sides were allowed two missile defense sites, one each around the capitals of Moscow and Washington, D.C., and the other at a site hosting intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States never built its system to protect the capital; it maintained a rudimentary system around a missile installation in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and in a few years abandoned even that. The Kremlin's leaders, meanwhile, built their treaty-permitted anti-ballistic missile system around the capital -- an insurance policy against any U.S. president mad enough to abandon M.A.D.
Star Wars and slogans
Then along came Ronald Reagan. His SDI -- the Strategic Defense Initiative -- was meant to defend against Soviet nuclear attack, but the first anti-SDI salvo came from Senator Ted Kennedy, who denounced the "reckless Star Wars scheme," a brilliant pop-culture riposte playing on Reagan's Hollywood past and the mass mania of sci-fi fans then awaiting the release of George Lucas's "Return of the Jedi."