Is The Pentagon Really Sabotaging North Korea’s Missile Tests With Cyber Attacks?

Jared Keller Avatar

The latest North Korea missile test ended as everyone expected: with a spectacular failure.

On April 29, Pyongyang tested another long-range missile amid rising tensions with the U.S. and China. A spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command said the missile only flew “for several minutes” before disappearing from radar, according to the New York Times. The test came after another missile exploded just after launch, marking the second failure for the North Korean military in as many weeks.

Appearing on CBS News’ “Face The Nation” on Sunday, President Donald Trump would not discuss whether the U.S was in any way involved with Pyongyang’s latest string of failed tests. But according to some foreign policy observers, Trump “hinted” that the Pentagon was sabotaging North Korea’s nuclear efforts.

“I’d rather not discuss it,” said Trump. “But perhaps they’re just not very good missiles.”

While Trump’s “hint” seems a little thin, a covert cyberwar waged by Pentagon hackers against North Korean missile systems certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility — and the possibility has become a hot subject of debate around the internet. There are plenty of precedents and circumstantial nuggets to suggest Uncle Sam could be monkeying with Kim’s weapons programs.

Photo taken in October 2015 shows North Korea’s intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missiles displayed during a military parade. It was reported on May 31, 2016, that Pyongyang fired a missile, possibly a Musudan, but the launch appears to have failed.Photo via Associated Press

In 2010, the U.S. and Israeli governments developed a computer virus, Stuxnet, to destabilize the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, where Western governments suspected Tehran was developing nuclear weapons.

Upon taking office, Trump inherited a three-year-old mandate from then-President Barack Obama that the Pentagon “step up their cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile program in hopes of sabotaging test launches in their opening seconds,” a demand Obama made in 2013 after Pyongyang set off a nuclear test with the magnitude of the Hiroshima bomb, according to a March report from the New York Times:

Days after the explosion, the Pentagon announced an expansion of its force of antimissile interceptors in California and Alaska. It also began to unveil its “left of launch” program to disable missiles before liftoff — hoping to bolster its chances of destroying them. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced the program, saying that “cyberwarfare, directed energy and electronic attack,” a reference to such things as malware, lasers and signal jamming, were all becoming important new adjuncts to the traditional ways of deflecting enemy strikes.

Not long after General Dempsey made his public announcement, Obama and his defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, began calling meetings focused on one question: Could a crash program slow the North’s march toward an intercontinental ballistic missile? … Obama ultimately pressed the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to pull out all the stops, which officials took as encouragement to reach for untested technologies.

Shortly after the meeting, the Times reports, Pyongyang’s missiles “began to fail at a remarkable pace.” 

The Pentagon has pursued so-called “left of launch” options aggressively. In a 2014 memo to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, then-Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno and the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert encouraged the Pentagon to take a “long-term approach” to ballistic missile defense through the adoption of “left of launch” and “other non-kinetic means of defense” — namely cyber and directed-energy warfare. Their message got through: The Department of Defense’s FY2017 budget request noted that program called Nimble Fire had expanded the Pentagon’s potential for “electronic attack” and “offensive cyber operations” and will continue to do so in coming years.

Fully armed aircraft from the 18th Wing conduct an elephant walk during a no-notice exercise April 12, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The 18th Wing operates combat ready fleets of HH-60 Pave Hawks, F-15 Eagles, E-3 Sentries and KC-135 Stratotankers, making it the largest combat-ready wing in the U.S. Air Force. Kadena AB provides leading-edge counter air, command and control, air refueling and combat search and rescue operations, enabling theater commanders of joint and allied partners to project and enhance lethal, persistent and flexible combat power in response to adversaries.Photo via DoD

That momentum has only grown in recent years. In testimony during an April Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on missile defense, Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency chief Vice Adm. James Syring described the potential non-kinetic missile countermeasures like directed energy weapons and “left of launch” cyber attacks as “game-changing.” In the same hearing, then-deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon urged lawmakers to develop “a wider range of tools and that includes the efforts underway to address such threats before they are launched.”

The New York Times’ reporting seems to leave little question about the role of Washington cyber operations in disrupting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as it did Iran’s, but some foreign policy observers remain skeptical that the Pentagon has engineered such an effective (and elegant) solution to the Pyongyang problem. Writing in Foreign Policy, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies chief Jeffrey Lewis lays out the problems with the Times assessment:

North Korea’s missiles aren’t really failing at a terrible rate. [The New York Times report] argued that soon after Obama’s decision in 2014, a “large number of the North’s military rockets began to explode, veer off course, disintegrate in midair and plunge into the sea.” Correlation is not causation, of course, and a simple review of North Korea’s missile launches suggests that if the United States is hacking North Korean missiles, it is doing a crap job of it.

Since 2014, about three-quarters of Pyongyang’s launches have succeeded. My colleague Shea Cotton keeps a database of every North Korean missile launch. Of the 66 missiles that North Korea launched during 2014 and after, 51 have succeeded. If hacking is playing any role, it is defeating a trivial number of missiles. 

While U.S. cyber operations may have contributed to some launch failures in recent years, Lewis thinks that the popular Western conception of North Korean military leaders — deeply incompetent and batshit crazy — may actually prove more accurate, especially as Pyongyang experiments with relatively new and untested missile systems.

Chart via Created by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies for the Nuclear Threat Initiative

“There is, after all, a reason that ‘rocket science’ is popular as a metaphor for tasks that are complicated and difficult,” writes Lewis. “While the simple media narrative is to laugh at failed missile launches, the North Koreans learn from every flight, whether it works or not.”

There’s also reason to suggest that Pentagon leaders may exercise caution on deploying cyberattacks despite the urgency emanating from the Obama and Trump White Houses: As a relatively untested form of warfare, it’s unclear whether a regime of cyber attacks, though tactically effective in the short term, will yield unanticipated (and unwanted) strategic consequences beyond North Korea — like, in the words of arms control expert Andrew Futter, “underming strategic stability with Russia and plac considerable pressure on the strategic balance with China.”

Here’s Futter’s argument against cyber attacks from the July/August issue of Arms Control Association:

The introduction of cyber capabilities that could undermine the Russian nuclear deterrent is highly unlikely to help ease these strains. In fact, the threat of cyber disablement, combined with the development of other U.S. capabilities as part of the full-spectrum missile defense mission, is likely to add to Russia’s desire to modernize and upgrade its nuclear forces and keep them on high alert. The direct result of the United States using cyberattacks in this way could be increased instability, creating another major impediment to the maintenance of nuclear arms control regimes between Russia and the United States …

The potential implications of full-spectrum missile defense are perhaps even more acute for China, given its smaller and less sophisticated nuclear arsenal. 

It’s unclear how committed to cyber attacks the Pentagon has been since Obama ordered officials to pursue electronic deterrence strategies. But as Pyongyang appears dead-set on pursuing a robust nuclear arsenal, it seems almost certain that “non-kinetic launch interventions” will remain an important part of the United States’ ballistic missile defense posture.

Adm. Archer Macy, former director of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, put it best during a 2015 panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Ballistic missile defense cannot consist simply of defeating the launch, flight, targeting and arrival of all of the missiles an enemy could employ,” he said. “We cannot simply play catch.”