STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in Washington, U.S. military officials are hinting that they might do more than just watch that North Korean missile test. The U.S. has spent many billions of dollars on a rudimentary missile defense system, which raises the question of whether to try it out.

Phil Coyle is a former Pentagon official who keeps a skeptical eye on the Missile Defense Program from a Washington think tank.

Mr. PHIL COYLE (Senior Advisor, Center for Defense Information, Washington, D.C.): Off the North Korean coast, there are Navy ships with radars on them -quite good radars. And out in space, there are also satellites that look at North Korea. So, with those capabilities, I think we would know it, if North Korea did launch a missile. It's not absolutely guaranteed - if the weather was bad, there was a lot of cloud overcast or something like that - it's possible the satellites might not see it, but I think they probably would.

INSKEEP: Now, the radars that you mentioned on the ships, and also the satellite detecting systems you mentioned, are they connected then to the missile defense system that is now deployed?

Mr. COYLE: Well, sort of. That's been one of the things the military has been working on, is to make all of those connections work. Its sounds simple, but as we've seen for our soldiers in Iraq, sometimes they end up resorting to cell phones and other things that the military doesn't quite have.

INSKEEP: Well, if it works as planned, are they connected?

Mr. COYLE: They're still developing all of those systems, but there are some rudimentary connections there, yes.

INSKEEP: so then, what are they connected to? What missile defenses are actually in place at this moment?

Mr. COYLE: There are interceptors in the ground, nine of them, at Fort Greeley, in Alaska, and there are a couple more at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. So, in theory, they could send a signal to one or the other of those interceptors and tell it to take off and go after an enemy missile.

INSKEEP: And when you say an interceptor, what's there?

Mr. COYLE: Well, it's a very big rocket; so big that it sits down inside a very deep silo. And on the end of that big rocket there is a thing they call a kill vehicle, which is the pointy end of interceptor, which actually separates - is supposed to separate from the big rocket out in space - and hit the enemy missile.

INSKEEP: And this is a system that has been tested over and over again, through the years. What are the results, overall?

Mr. COYLE: Currently, the system has no demonstrated capability to defend the United States against enemy attack under realistic operational conditions. I say that because, so far, either the tests have failed or they've been conducted under very scripted conditions; where the defenders, the interceptors, know in advance information about the enemy that no enemy would ever give you.

INSKEEP: What we could say, I guess, in defense of these systems, is that under controlled conditions they have sometimes hit the target. Is that correct?

Mr. COYLE: Yes, it is.

INSKEEP: If North Korea were to test this missile, which theoretically could reach the United States - if they fired a missile out over the Pacific Ocean to some test target - could the United States test its own system by trying to shoot it down?

Mr. COYLE: Well, it would take a lot of chutzpa, because they might miss, as they have in recent tests. It would also depend on where North Korea aimed their missile. If they aimed it towards the south, the missile system in Alaska couldn't reach it anyway. But if, let's say, they aimed their missile - North Korea aimed their missile towards Alaska - then I suppose the missile defense agency could try to shoot it down. But based on the recent test results, it would be a very nervy thing to do, because they haven't had a successful test now in four years.

INSKEEP: Is this perceived missile threat from North Korea, Mr. Coyle, exactly the kind of threat for which the missile defense system was designed?

Mr. COYLE: Yes, it is. In fact, to have it be believable that the missile defense system might work, the scenario that has been put forward is that North Korea only launches one missile or maybe two at the United States, and that the North Koreans don't use any kind of counter measures or decoys to fool us along the way. So if that's what North Korea did this time, yes, that's the kind of scenario that the missile defense agency has had in mind.

INSKEEP: Phil Coyle is a former senior official at the Pentagon, and is now with the Center for Defense Information, in Washington.

Thanks very much.

Mr. COYLE: Nice talking with you.

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