Anti-missile missile
A long-range ground-based interceptor is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May. Courtesy Missile Defense Agency

North Korea’s test of a long-range missile on Tuesday is rightly a cause for concern. It’s the top headline on cable TV and news websites, but should we worry in San Diego?

Here’s a scenario, based on publicly available information, for what would happen if the “Hermit Kingdom” launched a nuclear-tipped missile aimed at San Diego.

The first thing to consider is that the United States military maintains early-warning satellites and radar for just this kind of event. In a statement Tuesday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said it “detected and tracked a single North Korea missile launch today at about 1:17 p.m.” and determined the missile “did not pose a threat to North America or U.S. territories and allies.”

What if it had posed a threat? Then it’s up to a layered defense provided by missiles carried aboard Navy ships and based in underground silos in the United States.

The Navy has 30 cruisers and destroyers equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, with 16 of the ships deployed in the Pacific Ocean. They carry the Standard Missile 3, the latest versions of which have a range of 1,350 miles and can intercept a ballistic missile in its “boost phase,” while its engines are still firing.

Missiles from Navy ships are most effective against intermediate-range missiles that would threaten Japan, Guam or Hawaii, but might be used against a long-range threat from North Korea.

If the Navy didn’t shoot down the North Korean missile, the Air Force would have its turn.

A missile aimed at San Diego would fly over Alaska and then along the West Coast. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency has 44 interceptor missiles divided between Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara.

The missiles are tipped with an “exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,” which uses sophisticated sensors and computers to directly hit an incoming missile at a closing speed of many thousands of miles per hour. An impact at such high speed is more destructive than an explosive.

It’s difficult to imagine a North Korean missile getting through all of these layers. And in any case, the U.S. would likely retaliate.

One of the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines on patrol in the Pacific could fire a single Trident II missile at North Korea. Each of these missiles carries 8 to 12 independently targeted nuclear warheads, each far more powerful than the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima.

The U.S. might alternatively send B-1 or B-2 bombers or F-22 Raptor stealth fighters carrying B61 nuclear bombs. In either case, not much would be left of North Korea.

A nuclear-armed North Korea is scary, but is its leadership suicidal?

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.