U.S. Missile Defense Capability Questioned

The U.S. has a limited missile defense capability intended to protect America from threats like the one posed by North Korea. But whether the defense system could actually stop incoming warheads is still unclear.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. President Bush told an interviewer yesterday that the U.S. was ready for a North Korean missile.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We had a plan in place to respond, if he were to fire these things.

Mr. LARRY KING (CNN): Were you prepared to shoot it down?

President BUSH: If it headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country.

INSKEEP: The President, speaking with CNN's Larry King.

The defense system was activated this week during North Korea's test of a long-range missile. As it turned out, the test missile failed. It never came close to challenging a missile defense system that has also failed a lot of tests. The administration calls the system limited but effective, while critics ask if it will ever provide real protection.

Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWNAM reporting:

Eleven American interceptor missiles stand guard against the long-range North Korean missile. They are set in silos in Alaska and California. If all goes as planned, they would surge out of the ground, rise into space above the Pacific, and arc toward an incoming Taepodong-2 warhead.

Mr. JOHN E. PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Because you'd want to have as many opportunities as possible to intercept the incoming object, you'd fire a pair of interceptors. If those failed to succeed, you'd want to fire more until eventually you'd manage to intercept it.

BOWMAN: That's John Pike, a defense analyst, who says there's a fifty-fifty chance of that perfect scenario. Missile defense has been plagued with technical problems. There hasn't been a successful interceptor test in four years. And he says there's a big problem if the North Koreans launch multiple missiles, or worse, if they ever figure out how to confuse the American interceptor missiles.

Mr. PIKE: This is the famous decoy problem. If instead of a single warhead coming off the front of the missile, you have a dozen objects, two dozen objects, and you can't tell which one's the hydrogen bomb and which one's the balloon, you're going to run out of interceptors before you run out of things to intercept.

BOWMAN: Lieutenant General Trey Obering, the head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, has declined interviews since the North Korean launches. But he told reporters two weeks ago he believes the system will work as planned.

Lieutenant General HENRY A. TREY OBERING III (Director, Missile Defense Agency): Based on the testing that we have done to date, I am confident that we could hit a long-range missile that would be fired at the United States.

Unidentified Man: How confident?

Lt. Gen. OBERING: It's - in my mind it's much higher confidence than what has been described by some of our critics in the press.

BOWMAN: Philip Coyle, who served as director of testing at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, is among the critics. He is skeptical, and he says it's because testing took a back seat to putting missiles in silos.

Mr. PHILIP E. COYLE (Former Director, Operational Test and Evaluation): What changed the priorities was in 2002 President Bush declared that he wanted hardware deployed. And that really changed the priorities in the program. The bottom fell out of the testing schedule and the priority went to deployment.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon went pushed ahead with plans to set up a small number of interceptors in Alaska and California. But the entire system - a vast collection of radar, satellites, and interceptors - has never been fully tested. Only separate components have been tested over the years.

Rick Lehner, a spokesman with the Missile Defense Agency, says it would be too expensive to build an entire missile defense system for testing, and another for operations. Lehner says it's better to build a limited defense shield than nothing at all.

At the same time, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, raised doubts about the performance of the missile interceptors. It said it's uncertain whether some components can even work in space.

President Bush, however, says he's pressing ahead with his plans for a missile defense shield, a program that has cost $100 billion over the past 20 years.

President BUSH: We will continue to build a robust system, because I think it's in, I know it's in our interest to make sure that we're never in a position where somebody can blackmail us.

BOWMAN: Another $58 billion will be spent during the next six years. The Bush administration plans to have up to 54 long-range interceptors after 2010, including as many as 10 interceptors in Europe.

Coyle says building such a robust system is easier said than done, and there may never be an effective missile shield.

Mr. COYLE: It's hard for Americans not to want technology to be a kind of silver bullet, the thing that will solve all of our problems. But sometimes technology just isn't there when we want it. Depending on what the threat becomes, it becomes harder and harder for missile defense.

BOWMAN: Still, Coyle says there are some promising parts of the missile defense program. The Navy has had success in its EGIS program, basically ships with advanced radar and missiles that can shoot down a warhead. Others seem some hope in an airborne laser, which could potentially zap a missile out of the sky, perhaps sometime in the next decade.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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