North Korea is on track to solve the problems of re-entry and guidance in developing an accurate ICBM capable of targeting the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead, Air Force Gen. John Hyten said Wednesday.
"We have to look at that capability of North Korea as a matter of when, not if," Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said at a Hudson Institute forum.
He said it is unclear to U.S. intelligence whether North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), although it claims to have done so.
Hyten also said it is unknown whether North Korea has solved the problem of developing a warhead that can survive re-entry into the atmosphere, but "they're going down that path, which means they're eventually going to get there."
He continued, "The one thing they have not demonstrated to the U.S. is the ability to put everything together," adding that was the hardest part when the U.S. was building its own nuclear arsenal.
However, "If you're going down that path, you'll eventually figure it out. You will. So we have to assume, and as commander of Strategic Command I have to assume, that they have the bomb and they will have the capability to deploy it on an ICBM," Hyten said. "And I have to figure out how to respond if asked by the president of the United States."
Without going into detail, he added, "If they want to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, it is not going to work out well for North Korea."
Should North Korea make the attempt, "the response is going to be overwhelming," Hyten said.
The message that should be clear to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is that "if you want to go, we're ready," he said. "We've communicated that well enough to the North Koreans."
The latest crisis on the Korean peninsula took on a new dimension in July with the test launches by North Korea of two ICBMs that U.S. officials estimated had the range to hit the U.S. mainland.
In August, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion that the North claimed to have been a hydrogen bomb.
Hyten said he is confident that the ground-based U.S. missile defense system, mainly consisting of hit-to-kill interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, has the ability to stop a North Korean ICBM.
But "no defense is perfect," he said.
"I'm very confident in that [missile defense] ability" under the command of Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, head of U.S. Northern Command, Hyten said.
"Could it be better? Yes," he said, citing the need for improved sensors and interceptor warheads, but "I'm confident today that if something happened, [Robinson] has the ability with the fielded forces we have to defend against ballistic missile attack by North Korea."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.