It's clear North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is neither impressed nor deterred by recent displays of U.S. military might, so it's time to up the ante, says a retired American four-star commander.
Rather than flying American bombers over the south, or firing missiles into the sea, the U.S. should target the next intercontinental ballistic missile North Korea launches, said retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald.
"I would try to shoot one of their test missiles down instead of just firing missiles off the South Korean coast out there," Wald said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
This week, the U.S. and South Korea responded to North Korea's launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile by firing a volley of short-range, precision missiles into the waters off South Korea's east coast.
"I don't know what that does," said Wald, a former deputy head of U.S. European Command who retired in 2006. "It shows we can fire missiles, I guess."
The Pentagon maintains the U.S. has the capability to shoot down a North Korean missile, but has not pulled the trigger so far because none of their tests have posed a threat to the U.S. or allies Japan and South Korea.
"If you're talking about an ICBM, it's something we have confidence in," Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said Wednesday. "We just did a test last month, where we simulated a North Korean ICBM, and we shot it down over the Pacific Ocean.
The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Vice Adm. Jim Syring, told Congress last month the test was "an exact replica of the scenario that this country would face if North Korea were to fire a ballistic missile against the United States."
Syring said the trajectory of the target was exactly the same as a missile fired from the Korean peninsula, and that in a real-world attack, the U.S. would fire multiple interceptors to increase the chance of destroying the incoming warhead in space.
The Pentagon conceded the July 4 launch of what North Korea is calling its Hwasong-14 missile, while not a threat to Japan or South Korea, was a risk to commercial shipping and air traffic because Pyongyang issued none of the required notices of a live-fire exercise.
Still no attempt was made to shoot it down, a decision that would be made by U.S. allies in the region, Davis said.
"For missiles that could be threatening Japan or South Korea, those [decisions] are made by those countries with our input," Davis said. "We have systems that connect with theirs to be able to inform their decision very quickly."
Wald, who directed strategic plans and policy for the Air Force, admits there are risks to shooting down one of Kim's missiles to get his attention.
"The danger there is if you miss it doesn't do much except encourage them to do more of it. But if you shoot it down, it gives them pause," Wald said.
And he admits so far, the mercurial North Korean leader appears unfazed by even a credible show of force. "The problem you have with Kim going in is that he's unpredictable, and deterrence is based on reasonable predictability."
That unpredictability poses another risk to the idea of mounting a more muscular response to the North's accelerating missile tests, namely the possibility of overreaction.
While the U.S. would portray any future missile shootdown as a legitimate act of collective self-defense, Kim might see it as an act of war, tantamount to a strike against a missile on a launchpad on the ground, something U.S. military planners warn could be the spark that ignites an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
"Depending on how risk-acceptant you are, you could launch a limited strike and hope the North Koreans won't retaliate," said Stephen Biddle, a professor who teaches military strategy at George Washington University. "And they might not."
Every military option has a risk calculus, Biddle said. The greater the threat, the more willing the Pentagon will be to use military force.
Shooting down an unarmed missile that otherwise would likely fall harmlessly into the sea, is one thing. Detecting an imminent launch of a nuclear-armed ICBM would be another.
"What you are doing is you are rolling the dice, and you are taking some risk that the North Koreans will retaliate in the hope that you eliminate a threat that otherwise would cost lots of Americans lives to be lost," Biddle said.
At the Pentagon Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tried to tamp down the talk of military action.
"We stand ready to provide options if they are necessary," Mattis told reporters at an impromptu off-camera news conference. "But this is purely diplomatically-led, with economic sanctions and buttressed by the military position that we're taking right now."