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World leaders are gathering here in New York this week. Those attending a meeting of the United Nations include President Bush and the president of Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is back in a country that he often critiques. And we expect to broadcast an interview with the Iranian leader on Morning Edition tomorrow. His country is among the nations the U.S. hopes to contain with the missile defense system, which we'll talk about next.

The Bush administration has committed $60 billion to missile defense. And starting today, we're going to examine what we get. Missile interceptors are now in silos in the ground in Alaska and California. U.S. warships have them too. U.S. allies are involved. There is still, though, the question of whether missile defense is worth it. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: Proponents of U.S. missile defense believe the threat to the United States from the spread of ballistic missiles around the world is imminent and growing. Witness this Hollywood-style video on the Web site of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency depicting a variety of missile attack scenarios the U.S. might face now or in the future.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Unidentified Announcer: Inform Pentagon and White House, two threats remain in system, one for impact point in Hawaii and one for impact point in San Francisco. Time to intercept threat to Hawaii, T plus 10 minutes.

SHUSTER: North Korea, Iran, and potentially other hostile states are developing their missile capabilities. North Korea already has a nuclear weapon, and many believe Iran could acquire one in the not-too-distant future. If those states or others also develop missiles that could reach the United States, then say proponents of missile defense, we must be able to destroy hostile missiles before they reach American soil. And so, since 2002 the Bush administration has deployed missile interceptors. Four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and 14 more, so far, at Fort Greely in Central Alaska, housed in buried silos on several flat fields against the dramatic backdrop of the snow-covered Alaska mountain range.

We've opened a little round window in the temporary hatch on top of the silo, right?

Colonel GEORGE BAHN(ph): We've opened up the clamshell cover that covers the interceptor.

SHUSTER: Colonel George Bahn gazes down at the nosecone of a powerful three-stage missile primed for launch to prevent a devastating nuclear attack.

Colonel BAHN: We're looking at a ground-based interceptor. This is the 54-foot missile that is designed to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile headed to the territory of the United States.

SHUSTER: It was a quest that began with a speech by President Ronald Reagan 25 years ago.

(Soundbite of speech)

President RONALD REAGAN: What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies? I know this is a formidable technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it's reasonable for us to begin this effort.

SHUSTER: President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, quickly dubbed "Star Wars," got no further than the research laboratory. He was overly optimistic about the scope, pace, and sophistication of the technology, and about the political firestorm his proposal would ignite. But when President George W. Bush took office, he brought with him advisers that were convinced a scaled-down version of missile defense must be deployed to confront the threat, not from Russia's huge arsenal of ICBMs, but from the isolated rogue states of the world which were developing missiles and which, the reasoning went, could not be deterred from using them against the US. Lieutenant General Henry Obering is the director of the Missile Defense Agency.

Lieutenant General HENRY OBERING (Director, Missile Defense Agency): There could be groups that are either non-state actors or groups within a government operating potentially outside the government that want to use this to strike a blow for their cause. They would not be deterable necessarily. They would not even concern themselves with retaliation, because they don't care. These are the kind of things we're trying to think through as we face the future.

SHUSTER: Just this past summer, Iran very publicly tested several short and medium-range missiles. North Korea has constructed a second missile test launch site, and just last week it fired an engine component that analysts believe could be used on a North Korean ICBM designed to reach the US. The Missile Defense Agency lists more than 20 nations with missile capabilities now, arguing that the proliferation of this technology makes defenses more necessary than ever. That was Secretary of State Rice's message when she traveled to Prague earlier this year to sign an agreement with the Czech Republic beginning the expansion of the US missile defense system to Europe.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat. As we know, the Iranians continue defiance of international obligations to suspend their enrichment and reprocessing. But they also continue apace in their missile development. And so we need to be prepared for that threat.

SHUSTER: But not everyone is convinced this threat justifies the billions of dollars spent so far. Joe Cirincione is an expert on missile proliferation and author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons."

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (President, Ploughshares Fund; Author, "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons"): The Iranians like to brag about their missile program, to exaggerate their threat to puff themselves up. And US officials are only too happy to take those exaggerations in order to justify the budgets for their anti-missile program. We're engaged in sort of a hype-hype rhetorical battle going on here.

SHUSTER: In fact, the Iranians doctored a photo they released this summer that sought to cover up what might have been a failure of one of their missile test flights. Joe Cirincione argues that the proliferation of ballistic missiles is not as serious a threat as Rice, Obering, and others make out.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: When you actually look at it, when you actually count the missiles, there are far fewer missiles in the world now than there were 20 years ago, fewer missile programs in the world now than 20 years ago, fewer hostile states.

SHUSTER: Then there's the attack scenario itself. Would the leaders of North Korea and Iran be so insane as to launch one or two missiles against the United States with the certainty that in the face of overwhelming American retaliation they would be committing national suicide? Richard Garwin doesn't think so. Garwin has been a key adviser to many administrations over the years on issues involving nuclear weapons. Garwin testified before a congressional panel earlier this year that the threat of attack with nuclear weapons is real, but not delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Dr. RICHARD GARWIN (Physicist; IBM Fellow Emeritus, Thomas J. Watson Research Center): A state wishing to deliver nuclear weapons to injure the United States homeland would far more likely use short-range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles launched from a ship to attack US coastal cities with nuclear weapons than use an ICBM for that purpose.

SHUSTER: The Bush administration has been working hard to develop sea-based missile defenses. The latest successful anti-missile flight test at sea involved the USS Lake Erie off Hawaii several months ago.

(Soundbite of anti-missile flight test)

Unidentified Announcer: Fireball, Fireball, Fireball. Track 7Q55. Track lifting. Nine, eight, seven...

SHUSTER: The deployment of U.S. missile defenses continues, as does the debate over its cost and capabilities. General Obering, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, views it as an insurance policy.

Lieutenant General OBERING: If we can prevent one attack - whether it be from another country, from a non-state actor, terrorist organization using these types of weapons - one attack on an American city, we would more than pay for this program many, many times over, and of course, the prevention of the loss of life.

SHUSTER: All this week we will be exploring the American Missile Defense System. Tomorrow we travel to Alaska for a close look at the centerpiece of the system, the ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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