Washington (CNN)Vice President Mike Pence avoided a direct answer when asked if the US used any cyber or electronic technology to sabotage Sunday's North Korean missile test. But his response went beyond offering a simple "no comment," as he made it very clear that the US recognized that the launch failed, and failed almost immediately.
Pence avoids direct answer on North Korea sabotage
Speculation that the US may have used cyber capabilities to thwart the North Korean missile test comes at a time of escalating rhetoric between the two nations.
Tensions flared recently ahead of a key North Korean holiday and amid analysts' assessments that the country's sixth nuclear test could be in the works.
While the nuclear test has yet to happen, Pence pushed the theme of tough talk after Sunday's failed missile launch.
"I really can't comment on the electronic and technical capabilities of our military," Pence told CNN's Dana Bash aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan. "What I can say is that it failed. It was one more provocation by a regime that continues to flout the use of -- and it's got to come to an end."
While Pence would neither confirm nor deny that the US military has the technology to sabotage a North Korean missile launch, cyber experts told CNN that the US has the capability and could execute the action in several different ways.
"You could either go after the supply chain, embedding flaws in parts and systems that they are using," said Peter Singer, fellow at New America and author of the book "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know."
Another option would be to insert malware that either breaks systems or reports false information that sabotages the equipment, similar to the Stuxnet operation against Iran's nuclear facilities in 2011.
Degrading North Korea's missile capability via hacking is a tactic that is actively being pursued by the US military, according to public statements and congressional testimony by current and former members of the armed forces.
The New York Times reported last month that President Donald Trump inherited a cyberwar on North Korea in the hope of sabotaging its missile tests.
"It's clear United States policy to develop the cybercapability to disable enemy ballistic missiles," Greg Austin, a professor at the Australian Centre for Cyber Security at the University of New South Wales, told CNN on Tuesday.
As far as what to hack, "there's lots of ways in, which makes it very hard for the defender to know what's being attacked and what's not being attacked," said Austin, who is leading the UNSW's newly announced Research Group on Cyber War and Peace.
Most missiles have a self-destruct button, which could be activated.
But Austin believes a successful hack would most likely target the launch sequencing, which could potentially degrade the launch.
"Just interfere with a process that creates a physical effect of some sort that then has a destructive effect on the operation of the missile," he said
The Trump administration has said that it is reviewing all options on North Korea, including those involving military action, but Defense Secretary James Mattis is also underscoring the need for a non-military solution.
"You're aware that the leader of North Korea again recklessly tried to provoke something by launching a missile," he recently told reporters. "It was not an intercontinental ballistic missile, it failed on launch, and it shows why we're working so closely right now with the Chinese."