Defense Secretary James Mattis on Oct. 30 told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee how the US would respond to a North Korean nuclear missile attack.
"What happens if somebody knocks on the door of the Oval Office and says, 'Mr. President, they've launched'?" Sen. Jim Risch said.
Mattis replied: "Our ballistic-missile-defense forces at sea and in Alaska and California ... the various radars would be feeding in, and they would do what they're designed to do as we make every effort to take them out."
The US has recently tested and improved its missile-defense systems, but the threat from a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile remains a serious question, as experts have said the US wouldn't fare well against a salvo of missiles or those with decoys or countermeasures.
KCNA, the state run media out of North Korea, released a photo of what it claims is the launch of a surface-to-surface medium long range ballistic missile. (KCNA)
But the bulk of US deterrence has never rested in missile defense, but rather in offensive capability.
"The response — if that's what you're referring to — would, of course, depend on the president," Mattis said. He explained that the president would see a "wide array" of options that included cooperation with US allies.
"Defenses will go," Mattis said. "The president will be woken up or whatever, but our commands are — we rehearse this routinely."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added: "Some judgment would be made over whether a necessary and proportionate response is required."
But neither Tillerson nor Mattis would categorically rule out a nuclear first strike on North Korea. Both made statements to the effect that if the US knew a North Korean nuclear attack on the US was imminent, President Donald Trump reserved the right to preempt it with a launch.
"The fact is that no president, Republican or Democrat, has ever forsworn the first-strike capability," Tillerson said. "That has served us for 70 years."