WASHINGTON — US intelligence believes North Korea is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and putting it on its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Tuesday.
"We haven't seen them test the KN-08 yet and we're waiting for them to do that, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they will fly it before they test it," he added.
Even without seeing a test of a nuclear-capable KN-08, Gortney called it "prudent" to plan for the threat.
"It's not that hard to shrink it down, but what happens is you start to encounter reliability problems, especially if it's got a ride on an ICBM," Lewis said.
Given that there are doubts in many sectors about whether a KN-08 could ever deliver a nuclear payload, Lewis said different parts of the national security apparatus have handled it differently. The Pentagon, he said, errs on the side of caution when discussing and planning for the threat.
Certainly, the idea that North Korea would want to develop a nuclear weapon capable of going on an ICBM is not a shock. Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said there is plenty of evidence the Kim regime is looking to build that capacity.
Gortney's comments come as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter begins his first trip to Asia since he took office in February. Carter is spending two days in Japan before moving on to Seoul for talks with South Korean officials.
Those talks, Carter said in a Monday speech, will "reinforce deterrence and improve capabilities on the peninsula to counteract an increasingly dangerous and provocative North Korea."
The proliferation of mobile ICBMs is an issue for missile defense systems as a whole, and Gortney acknowledged the cost curve for missile defense needs to drop for the future.
To help drive prices down and keep up with current threats, Gortney would prefer to see the money Congress wants to spend on an East Coast missile defense network instead be reinvested into new technology development.
"If I had one more dollar to do ballistic missile defense, I wouldn't put it against the East Coast missile site," he said. "I'd put it against those technologies that would allow us to get to the correct side of the cost curve in ballistic missile defense."
"It is a proliferating threat. It is growing. Countries are developing those capabilities, they can threaten their neighbors with power projection with that, and our current approach has us on the wrong side of the cost curve," he continued. "So I would take those dollars and invest it in those necessary technologies."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.