US May Have to Shoot Down North Korean Nukes While in Russian Airspace

October 1, 2017 Updated: October 5, 2018    

If North Korea launches nuclear warheads at the United States, the U.S. anti-missile system may need to shoot the nukes down over Russian territory, according to an expert on nuclear and missile proliferation in Northeast Asia.

“[I]ntercepting the shots aimed at mainland targets means flying out toward Russia,” wrote Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at The Nonproliferation Review. “Defending a West Coast target even means engaging the attacking RV [warhead’s reentry vehicle] above the Russian Far East. Yikes.”

The United States has multiple missile defense systems. The Patriot missiles and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) can shoot down a missile while it approaches its target and are meant to intercept missiles of shorter range.

To stop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the country would use Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), which aims to destroy the incoming missile midcourse—while it’s still in space.

The United States has 32 GMD interceptors at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. By the end of the year, it plans to add eight more in Alaska.

In May, the system was successfully tested, but eight out of 17 previous tests failed. The United States would launch about four interceptors at every target to increase the likelihood of a success.

If North Korea did launch an ICBM at the United States, the missile would likely take a course over the North Pole. Shooting it down midway would mean the intercepting missiles’ paths would likely cross into Russian territory, triggering its early warning systems.

If Russia were to mistake interception of a North Korean missile for an attack on its territory, the repercussions could be catastrophic.

“It’s something we’re aware of,” said Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, according to Defense One. “It’s something we work our way through.”

The interceptors carry no explosives—they simply ram into their targets. That means Russia shouldn’t fear them. The question is, will it recognize them?

In July, North Korea tested its Hwasong-14 missile. Based on the test, the missile could reach as far as 6,210 miles, putting the U.S. West Coast within range.

But Russia refused to recognize the missile as an ICBM.

Moreover, Russia was previously concerned the United States could mount nuclear warheads on its missile interceptors, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2009.

To avoid Russian territory, the interception can be held off until the missile reaches closer to its target, but that would leave no time to shoot a second volley in case the first one fails.

Pollack suggested the United States could install GMDs on the Thule Air Base in Pituffik, Greenland, if its authorities agree. That would provide an angle that could avoid Russian territory.

“Moving GBIs to Thule would also force Missile Defense Agency spokespeople to learn how to pronounce Pituffik,” Pollack said. “That alone seems like justification enough.”