Five Myths About Missiles

August 28, 2017
Catherine Dill and Joshua Pollack

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on August 18, 2017.

North Korea’s test launches have brought the possibility of a nuclear strike firmly back into the American consciousness. A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that three-quarters of Americans now consider North Korea to be a “critical threat” to the United States. U.S. intelligence analysts believe that North Korea may start deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as soon as next year. And they think North Korea can fit nuclear warheads onto those missiles. How easy is it to detonate a nuclear weapon on foreign soil? Here are five myths about missiles, threats and deterrence.

Myth No. 1

For deterrence, countries must display functional weapons.

“North Korean missiles may reach US, but lack effective re-entry,” one Fox News article supplied soothingly this month. “Serious questions remain around North Korea’s ability to build vehicles to reenter the planet’s atmosphere through tremendous pressure and friction,” a Business Insider story explained . It sounds as if North Korea can’t be a threat if it hasn’t launched a projectile across the ocean.

But countries have never held their enemies to this standard. Early in the Cold War, nations tested nuclear weapons in a variety of settings, including underwater and underground. The United States and the Soviet Union also launched nuclear weapons on missiles, detonating them in the upper atmosphere or in space. At least once, on Feb. 2, 1956 , the Soviets launched a nuclear weapon into space on a medium-range missile, allowing it to reenter and detonate inside the atmosphere. On May 6, 1962 , the United States did the same from a submarine.

In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, moving all testing underground. Since then, the only nuclear missile test involving reentry was conducted by China on Oct. 27, 1966, with a medium-range missile. No country has ever attempted to demonstrate an ICBM in this fashion. Still, no one questions whether America, Britain, China, France or Russia have working nuclear missiles.

Myth No. 2

The U.S. could destroy an enemy’s arsenal on the ground.

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