Amid all of the noise and discussion surrounding hostilities between the United States and North Korea, you might be wondering if the U.S. could stop a North Korean missile that was directed at a major city. On this subject, it's important to note it's still open to debate whether North Korea actually has the technology to successfully launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) armed with a nuclear warhead and have it reach its target without a hitch. But if North Korea could actually launch a nuclear weapon toward the U.S., the U.S. military has developed technology that could potentially stop it.
Meet THAAD. No, it's not a person.
On Sunday, July 30, the U.S. conducted a successful test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Alaska, according to what military officials told NBC News. THAAD is designed to intercept short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, not ICBMs. During the test, a U.S. Air Force plane launched a ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean and the system intercepted it. This test occurred shortly after North Korea tested an ICBM theoretically capable of reaching targets in the mainland U.S.
On Tuesday, Aug. 8, it was reporteded North Korea had made great strides toward producing missile-ready nuclear weapons, including ICBM-class missiles. This suggests North Korea isn't that far away from producing a nuclear weapon that could reach the continental U.S.
In response to these developments, President Donald Trump said North Korea would be met with "fire and fury" if it continued to threaten the U.S. Subsequently, North Korea announced it was considering a strike against the U.S. territory of Guam. According to NBC, the U.S. has THAAD interceptors in Guam (as well as South Korea) that are meant to stop a missile attack from a country like North Korea.
The U.S. could potentially stop an ICBM as well.
The U.S. has developed the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system to defend against ICBMs.
In May, the GMD system successfully intercepted an ICBM. According to ABC News, the ground-based interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and intercepted an ICBM-target launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,200 miles away. This was impressive, but, according to The Atlantic, the GMD system has only achieved 55 percent success rate so it's not entirely reliable.
Beyond the GMD system, the U.S. is also reportedly developing laser technology that could stop an ICBM, The National Interest reports. The hope is to arm drones with these lasers and stop ICBMs before they're even in the air, but the military is still working on a laser that's powerful enough to take out an ICBM but also small enough to fit on a drone.
To summarize: The U.S. can feel safe in defending itself and its allies from missiles launched across a short distance, but it's yet to develop a completely dependable technology to defend against ICBMs. The comforting news here is that North Korea has also yet to develop the technology that could see an ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead successfully strike the U.S. Let's just hope the U.S. comes up with something more consistent by the time it does.