North Korea performs an 'underwater test-fire of a strategic submarine ballistic missile' this month at an undisclosed location. Pyongyang also uncussessfully test-fired a missile on Sunday. Photo by North Korean Central News Agency/EPA
April 18 (UPI) -- The U.S. military is considering a bolder response to ballistic missile tests by North Korea's socialist government -- blasting them completely out of the sky, according to sources.
Britain's The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday cited two sources, who said they have been briefed on the possibility, in reporting the Pentagon's proposal.
Tensions between Pyongyang and the Western world have steadily increased in recent years, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has repeatedly ordered ballistic missile tests -- acts that many U.S. officials view as provocative events.
Military officials believe shooting down North Korean test missiles would accomplish two things -- hindering Pyongyang's ability to develop long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States, and sending a clear message that its saber-rattling will not be tolerated by President Donald Trump's administration.
The Guardian report said Defense Secretary James Mattis has already briefed Congress on the possibility, but the Pentagon has not yet decided whether to go ahead with the option.
During a visit to South Korea this week, Vice President Mike Pence said North Korea's failed missile launch on Sunday was a provocation and warned Pyongyang against "testing" Trump's resolve.
North Korean officials, though, have dismissed calls for the missile tests to stop -- and have even threatened full-scale war if the United States attacks.
"We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures and all options are on the table," Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross said. "North Korea's unlawful weapons programs represent a clear, grave threat to U.S. national security."
The Pentagon's consideration of such a forceful response comes at a time the Department of Defense is preparing to conduct tests to gauge its ability to shoot down North Korean missiles in a live attack scenario.
Two major tests are scheduled for May, CNN reported Tuesday -- one to test fire an upgraded Standard Missile off a Navy ship, and one to test the United States' ability to knock an intercontinental ballistic missile out of the sky. The improved Standard Missile has only been tested once before.
According to the sources, the Pentagon would likely use an Aegis missile defense system on a Naval vessel to shoot down North Korean test missiles -- not the more sophisticated Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system the United States is providing to South Korea's government for security. Another possibility is the Pentagon could sabotage the missiles by jamming their guidance system.
Experts warn that by its very nature, shooting down one of North Korea's test missiles would bring a substantial risk of escalation -- and perhaps push the scope of consequences outside the Pentagon's control and impact U.S. allies in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea.
"I would see such an action as escalatory, but I couldn't guess how Kim Jong-un would interpret it," Abraham Denmark, a senior Asian policy official under former President Barack Obama, told the Guardian. "But I would be concerned [Kim Jong-un] would feel the need to react strongly, as he would not want to appear weak."
Another potentially serious consequence, experts say, is failure. If the U.S. can't effectively shoot down North Korea's test missiles, it could embolden Kim Jong-un's regime.
Previous U.S. administrations have considered shooting down North Korean test missiles -- as the country has been at odds with Western nations for decades -- but the option has never been utilized, due mostly to the potentially dire consequences of militarily escalating tensions with Pyongyang.
North and South Korea have been separated since 1945 and a state of war technically still exists between the two nations, even though a 1953 armistice agreement ended the Korean War. Pyongyang has said multiple times in the last quarter-century that it no longer recognizes the cease-fire.
Trump's administration has appeared to guide U.S. policy toward a more hawkish stance against North Korea since it assumed office in January, at least partly in response to the socialist regime's continued military tests.
"Our military is building and is rapidly becoming stronger than ever before. Frankly, we have no choice!" Trump tweeted last weekend.
"I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!" he said in another tweet last week.
"North Korea openly states that its ballistic missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons to strike cities in the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan," Ross said.
"I still see this as escalatory and playing with potential fire," Ken Gause, director of the international-affairs group at the think-tank CNA, said. "At the end of the day, Kim Jong-un cannot be seen internally as backing down from pressure."