Trump Inherits a Secret Cyberwar Against North Korean Missiles

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WASHINGTON — Three years ago, President Barack Obama ordered Pentagon officials to step up their cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile program in hopes of sabotaging test launches in their opening seconds. Soon a large number of the North’s military rockets began to explode, veer off course, disintegrate in midair and plunge into the sea. Advocates of such efforts say they believe that targeted attacks have given American antimissile

 defenses a new edge and delayed by several years the day when North Korea will be able to threaten American cities with nuclear weapons launched atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But other experts have grown increasingly skeptical of the new approach, arguing that manufacturing errors, disgruntled insiders and sheer incompetence can also send missiles awry. Over the past eight months, they note, the North has managed to successfully launch three medium-range rockets. And Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, now claims his country is in “the final stage in preparations” for the inaugural test of his intercontinental missiles — perhaps a bluff, perhaps not.

An examination of the Pentagon’s disruption effort, based on interviews with officials of the Obama and Trump administrations as well as a review of extensive but obscure public records, found that the United States still does not have the ability to effectively counter the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. Those threats are far more resilient than many experts thought, The New York Times’s reporting found, and pose such a danger that Mr. Obama, as he left office, warned President Trump they were likely to be the most urgent problem he would confront.

Mr. Trump has signaled his preference to respond aggressively against the North Korean threat. In a Twitter post after Mr. Kim first issued his warning on New Year’s Day, the president wrote, “It won’t happen!” Yet like Mr. Obama before him, Mr. Trump is quickly discovering that he must choose from highly imperfect options.

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He could order the escalation of the Pentagon’s cyber and electronic warfare effort, but that carries no guarantees. He could open negotiations with the North to freeze its nuclear and missile programs, but that would leave a looming threat in place. He could prepare for direct missile strikes on the launch sites, which Mr. Obama also considered, but there is little chance of hitting every target. He could press the Chinese to cut off trade and support, but Beijing has always stopped short of steps that could lead to the regime’s collapse.

In two meetings of Mr. Trump’s national security deputies in the Situation Room, the most recent on Tuesday, all those options were discussed, along with the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a dramatic warning. Administration officials say those issues will soon go to Mr. Trump and his top national security aides.

The decision to intensify the cyber and electronic strikes, in early 2014, came after Mr. Obama concluded that the $300 billion spent since the Eisenhower era on traditional antimissile systems, often compared to hitting “a bullet with a bullet,” had failed the core purpose of protecting the continental United States. Flight tests of interceptors based in Alaska and California had an overall failure rate of 56 percent, under near-perfect conditions. Privately, many experts warned the system would fare worse in real combat.

So the Obama administration searched for a better way to destroy missiles. It reached for techniques the Pentagon had long been experimenting with under the rubric of “left of launch,” because the attacks begin before the missiles ever reach the launchpad, or just as they lift off. For years, the Pentagon’s most senior officers and officials have publicly advocated these kinds of sophisticated attacks in little-noticed testimony to Congress and at defense conferences.

The Times inquiry began last spring as the number of the North’s missile failures soared. The investigation uncovered the military documents praising the new antimissile approach and found some pointing with photos and diagrams to North Korea as one of the most urgent targets.

After discussions with the office of the director of national intelligence last year and in recent days with Mr. Trump’s national security team, The Times agreed to withhold details of those efforts to keep North Korea from learning how to defeat them. Last fall, Mr. Kim was widely reported to have ordered an investigation into whether the United States was sabotaging North Korea’s launches, and over the past week he has executed senior security officials.

The approach taken in targeting the North Korean missiles has distinct echoes of the American- and Israeli-led sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, the most sophisticated known use of a cyberweapon meant to cripple a nuclear threat. But even that use of the “Stuxnet” worm in Iran quickly ran into limits. It was effective for several years, until the Iranians figured it out and recovered. And Iran posed a relatively easy target: an underground nuclear enrichment plant that could be attacked repeatedly.

In North Korea, the target is much more challenging. Missiles are fired from multiple launch sites around the country and moved about on mobile launchers in an elaborate shell game meant to deceive adversaries. To strike them, timing is critical.

Advocates of the sophisticated effort to remotely manipulate data inside North Korea’s missile systems argue the United States has no real alternative because the effort to stop the North from learning the secrets of making nuclear weapons has already failed. The only hope now is stopping the country from developing an intercontinental missile, and demonstrating that destructive threat to the world.

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