WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- When North Korea launches a ballistic missile over the Pacific, the United States top leaders turn to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Analysis by NASIC keeps the White House, Congress and the Pentagon aware of air, space and cyber threats and determine what dangers a missile from the rogue country has for the U.S. and its allies.
"It is no exaggeration to say that the assessments NASIC generates can make the difference between war and peace," said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.
NASIC last week opened a $29.5 million building expansion in a remote part of Wright-Patterson. The Air Force allowed the media to be at the opening, but revealed very little about the work that will be going on at the expansion.
The secretive agency with a MiG-29 jet fighter outside its headquarters assesses the intercontinental ballistic missile threat capabilities of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, among others, and disassembles foreign technology to find out the secrets an adversary has flying in air or space.
"They are clearly focused on cutting-edge problems that our country faces and that frankly many of my constituents ask me about every day," said U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the House Armed Services Committee chairman who got a behind-the-scenes tour of NASIC this month. "What are we going to do about North Korea? Where is Iran headed? What about the Russian and Chinese capabilities?"
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, has invited several members of Congress, including Thornberry, to tour NASIC and Wright-Patterson, which he called "critical" to national security.
Today, NASIC has 3,100 civilian employees and military personnel and a $430 million budget.
Along with the nation's highest-ranking political and military leaders, it provides intelligence to warfighters and to acquisition weapons experts to counter adversary threats.
"There are certainly issues that you hear about that are high in the national dialogue like North Korean ballistic missiles, but there are plenty of other things going on in the world that we watch," NASIC commander Col. Sean P. Larkin said in an interview with this newspaper.
NASIC will need future funding for a major expansion of its main headquarters to meet demands, Larkin said. He projected "modest" growth of the workforce, which has added an average of about 100 employees a year since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The agency workforce has mostly science, engineering and technology skills, and high demands in cyber, and data processing experts as the volume of intelligence to interpret and evaluate grows.
"The main thing we need at NASIC is innovative, hardworking, dedicated people to come here to do the nation's business," he said.
NASIC has a key role assessing the severity of military threats against the United States, said Thompson, who also serves as a defense industry consultant.
"It typically relies on technical means of collecting intelligence, which in the case of North Korea may be the only reliable intelligence we have," he said. "There are probably not many U.S. spies operating on the ground in North Korea.
"NASIC not only analyzes what weapons an enemy has, but what weapons it is seeking to acquire, when those weapons will become available, and how they might be used."
Turner, a member of both the House armed services and intelligence committees, said lawmakers understand the work NASIC does has grown in importance as the nation faces increasingly complex threats.
"By continuing to bring other top congressional leaders to Wright-Patt to see firsthand the important work done here, I am better able to advocate for Wright-Patt funding in Washington," he said in a statement that also credited his advocacy for congressional dollars to build a recent NASIC expansion.
NASIC marks its 100th anniversary in Dayton this year, tracing its history to the Army's old McCook Field in Dayton where engineers took apart foreign airplanes in World War I to learn the secrets they held. Since then, the predecessors of the agency and NASIC itself has dissected Russian-built MiG fighter jets and air-to-air missiles, among other bounty, and once led the Project Blue Book investigation into reports of UFOs in the 1960s.
North Korea, which has threatened a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the communist regime is attacked, has had a series of escalating missile and nuclear tests that have rattled neighboring U.S. allies Japan and South Korea and others.
"North Korea is a very tough problem set for us to analyze because it's so insular and so we only get to see their advancements when they test," said Gary O'Connell, a retired NASIC chief scientist. "It's getting predictive as possible against a country like that, trying to find out how far they've gotten before they actually launch."
The most difficult is trying to determine a nuclear-armed North Korea's intentions, he said. NASIC collaborates with other U.S. intelligence agencies to try to find that answer, he said.
"The biggest (nuclear arsenal) is definitely Russia simply in terms of numbers and destructive capability, but North Korea is probably the most unpredictable," O'Connell said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency assesses an adversary's nuclear warhead threat, while NASIC analyzes a foreign adversary's missiles with a range over 1,000 kilometers, he noted.
"Understanding precisely what capabilities North Korea has could be crucial to the survival of millions of people in the U.S. and allied states," said Thompson, a former deputy director of the security studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
"It isn't enough to know that the North Koreans are testing long-range missiles," he said. "We need to know whether they have nuclear warheads that might be carried on the missiles, what the explosive yield is, how accurately the warheads can be delivered, and whether they can survive fiery reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.
The U.S. has an array of arcane systems for collecting such technical intelligence, Thompson said, but added NASIC has to apply experience and expertise to the information to figure out precisely what it means for America's security.
In June, NASIC publicly issued a "Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat" report reviewing global threats. The analysis, put together with the Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee, noted North Korea had launched the Taepo Dong-2 space rocket that carried a satellite into orbit in December 2012 and February 2016.
If configured as an ICBM, it could reach the United States," the report said, adding the country had "unveiled road mobile ICBMs," and was developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, among a range of short- and long-range weapons.
"The pace of North Korea's ballistic missile flight tests have increased dramatically in recent years," NASIC experts reported.
In July, North Korea launched two Hwasong-14 ballistic missiles raising new alarms about the reclusive country's capabilities after the NASIC report was released.
Based on those flight tests, three independent researchers however concluded the Hwasong-14 was not currently a nuclear threat to the U.S. lower 48 states, but a "carefully choreographed deception by North Korea to create a false impression" it was a threat to the continental United States, said their report, published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in August and also reported in Newsweek.
The researchers' conclusions also raised doubts the missile could strike Anchorage, Alaska with a nuclear bomb. But they noted North Korea was advancing its skills.
Some questions remained unanswered, said Theodore A. Postol, one of the researchers. He is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus of science, technology and national security and a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations.
Among the unknown issues: Could North Korea build a lightweight nuclear weapon that a rocket could carry as a payload; could a warhead survive the gravitational forces of a trip through space and the fiery re-entry through the atmosphere; and how accurately could the weapon strike, Postol said in an interview with this newspaper.
"I would basically say that they probably do not have a nuclear capability against the United States at this time," the rocket expert said. ". I'm making what I think I could claim is a highly informed guess. But it is a guess and to be absolutely transparent, I have guessed wrong about these guys in the past."
In an email, he added it was "extremely unlikely" North Korea has built a miniaturized warhead. "However, to be absolutely transparent, nobody - including the US intelligence community - knows how far along North Korea has advanced in the miniaturization technology and ruggedizing of warheads," he wrote.
The United States has pushed to increase spending on anti-ballistic missile technology in the wake of North Korean tests.
The expansion of the Foreign Materiels Exploitation labs bode well for NASIC's future at Wright-Patterson, Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs in Washington, D.C.
"In the foreseeable future, that work is soundly planted at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base," he said.
NASIC collaborates with MSIC, which analyzes ballistic missiles with a range under 1,000 kilometers and surface-to-air missiles, Larkin said.
"We know where the lines are drawn between our missions, but together is where we do our best work to answer those key intelligence questions for our customers and help defend the nation," Larkin said.
Information from: Dayton Daily News, http://www.daytondailynews.com
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