The US military is proposing to send stealth fighters into North Korea to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles and stop a possible nuclear attack on the United States.
But the scheme, which has the support of at least one key congressman, would never actually work. "Cray cray" is how Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, described the plan to me.
The idea is simple, in theory. As an ICBM lifts off from its launcher somewhere in North Korea, an F-35 quickly fires AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or AMRAAMs, and knocks the rocket out of the sky.
According to trade publication Aviation Week, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency has studied the concept, as has Northrop Grumman, which builds many of the F-35's systems.
And now the fighters-versus-rockets scheme has a high-profile backer: Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "It’s like an act of God," Hunter said at a missile-defense conference in Washington, DC, in November. "You have F-35s, you have AMRAAMs, and you can shoot these things down as they go up."
There's no way that would actually work, several experts told me. For starters, AMRAAM missiles maneuver aerodynamically. They need atmosphere in order to steer. So an F-35 would have to shoot down the ICBM before it climbs above 100,000 feet. That gives the pilot just a few minutes to detect and engage the rocket.
"This sets such a short timescale for detection and interception you’d have to be very close to the launch site," Laura Grego, a missile expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told me. "How do you get the F-35s in there safely? I think you would have to already be occupying North Korea to use it."
And forget maintaining an around-the-clock patrol of F-35s near North Korean launch sites. Pyongyang’s air defense, including radars, missiles and guns, would pose a constant danger to the waiting jets. Besides that, Pyongyang possesses mobile launchers that can hide in caves and emerge suddenly to quickly launch ICBMs, making it hard to predict where a blast-off might take place. "You’d have to get very lucky," Lewis said.
Equally problematic, an F-35 can fly for only a couple of hours before needing to refuel. Long-term patrols could require large numbers of jets and aerial tankers. At present, the entire US Pacific Command possesses just 16 F-35s, all based in Japan.
Then there's the cost. A single hour of flying by an F-35 sets US taxpayers back $30,000. Maintaining a single round-the-clock patrol of two F-35s could require all 16 Japan-based F-35s and cost $3 million per day just for fuel and spare parts. That's more than a billion dollars per year, all for a very small chance of shooting down a rocket.
The chilling truth is that there are few reliable ways of shooting down an ICBM. "Most analysts I take seriously are very skeptical about any ground-based missile-defense system being able to provide reliable protection against the North Korean ballistic missile threat, either to the region or to the mainland US," said nuclear expert and former Congressional staffer Greg Thielmann.
That means the only way to prevent a long-range, nuclear-tipped rocket from striking the United States is to make sure it never launches. Missile-firing stealth fighters aren’t really an “act of God.” They can't replace diplomacy and deterrence.
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