The U.S. missile defense system is a global network with 24-hour surveillance by land-, sea- and space-based sensors, all of which are constantly looking for signs of anything amiss in North Korea. Regional missile interceptors are deployed in Japan, South Korea, Guam and on U.S. Navy ships, while military bases in Alaska and California are equipped to intercept a missile headed toward the United States. So what would that response look like? It’s impossible to say exactly, with so many variables in play and almost as many failures as successes in tests, but this is theoretically how the system should work.
If North Korea were to launch a missile, U.S. satellites would detect it almost instantaneously through infrared signals. In less than a minute, the satellite would raise the alarm, and the command and control center at Schriever Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colorado would spring into action.
The command center in Colorado would direct the radars in the region to track the missile as it climbed toward outer space. During that five- to seven-minute stretch, the TPY-2 and SPY-1 radar systems would be gathering data like trajectory, velocity and altitude to send back to the command center so they can figure out what type of missile was launched and whether it could reach the U.S. This “boost phase” is actually the ideal time to intercept a missile, but the current defense system isn’t equipped to do so yet.
The officers at the command center would consult with U.S. Northern Command (Northcom), based nearby at Peterson Air Force Base, where a round-the-clock watch officer would be responsible for approving an interceptor launch. If there was time, they might notify the Secretary of Defense in Washington, too.