The incident underscores two important points about North Korea. First, one of America's most unpredictable enemies is committed to developing and distributing missile technology. More disturbing still, the totalitarian nation is capable of transporting weapons in the Western hemisphere.
In recent years, the threat of a missile strike from adversarial regimes like North Korea as well as non-state terrorist actors has become more acute. In light of these developments, it's imperative that the United States and its allies continue to invest in missile defense technologies.
The North Korean government has been working to improve its missile capabilities for decades. The nation began developing tactical artillery rockets in the 1960s and ’70s and moved on to short- and medium-range missiles in the 1980s and ’90s.
Last December, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit using long-range missile technology known as Taepodong-2. A fully functioning Taepodong-2 missile is capable of reaching the United States. And in April, the Defense Intelligence Agency announced that North Korea likely has a nuclear weapon small enough to deliver with a ballistic missile.
What makes North Korea's missile program even more dangerous is that, for years, the country has supplied ballistic missiles to Iran and other American adversaries. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Pyongyang has made hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years exporting ballistic missiles to such countries as Syria — a country in the midst of a civil war, and that has apparently used chemical weapons — as well as other nations known for supporting terrorists and other enemies of the United States.
The Panama episode is merely the latest example of Pyongyang's efforts to help anti-American regimes improve their missile capabilities.
For the United States and its allies to remain secure in a world where oppressive regimes and terrorist organizations have greater and greater access to sophisticated ballistic missiles, a strong system of missile defense is an absolute necessity.
In the last three decades, research into missile defense technologies has yielded remarkable results.
Just this year, American military personnel teamed up with Israeli defense forces to successfully test cutting-edge interceptors over the Mediterranean Sea. Shortly after that, the U.S. Navy's shield program intercepted a fast-moving test target over the Pacific Ocean.
Back in the 1980s, when missile defense was first considered by the United States, many skeptics believed that destroying an enemy missile mid-flight was a pipe dream. Today, they've been definitively proven wrong. One shield program alone — the Patriot Air Defense Missile System — has completed more than 2,500 successful search and track tests. The Patriot is just one part of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's proven "family of systems."
As the missiles available to unfriendly regimes and terrorist groups become more advanced, so too must systems for defending against those missiles. It's for this reason that the Department of Defense is currently looking for new, more effective ways to intercept missiles, whether by making use of unmanned aerial drones or even relying on spaced-based assets that can sense and destroy incoming threats.
Given the major threats on the international scene, investments in these and other technologies for strengthening American missile defense aren't just prudent — they're essential.
The United States and its allies must be prepared for the unique security challenges we will face in the coming years. While North Korea's latest plot may have been foiled, the proliferation of ever more powerful missile systems will continue. We must be prepared.
(Editor’s Note: This guest “Viewpoint” has been written and submitted by Seth M.M. Stodder, a professor of national security law at the University of Southern California Law School, and is a partner at Obagi & Stodder LLP.)