U.S. Readies Missile Defense Before N. Korea Test A possible North Korean missile test that may be aimed in the direction of Hawaii has prompted the U.S. to deploy missile defense systems. Despite problems and test failures over the years, the Obama administration and the military seem confident that missile defense is up to the task.
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U.S. Readies Missile Defense Before N. Korea Test

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U.S. Readies Missile Defense Before N. Korea Test

U.S. Readies Missile Defense Before N. Korea Test

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The U.S. has deployed missile defense systems in case of a possible North Korean missile test, that missile may be aimed in the direction of Hawaii. Missile defense has had its problems over the years: tests failed or they only tested easy scenarios.

But as NPR's J.J. Sutherland reports, the Obama administration and the military seem confident that missile defense would be up to the task.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made it clear that the military is alarmed by a potential North Korean missile test in the coming weeks.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Department): Well, we're obviously watching the situation in the North, with respect to missile launches, very closely. And we do have some concerns if they were to launch a missile in the direction of Hawaii.

SUTHERLAND: As a result of those concerns, the secretary has ordered the deployment of a number of missile defenses and he seems quite confident they'll do the job.

Sec. GATES: Without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say I think we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect American territory.

SUTHERLAND: John Pike is a defense analyst. He runs the Web site GlobalSecurity.org. He says that confidence may be justified.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Against a very small number, like one, incoming warhead not accompanied by much in the way of decoys, they would more likely than not be able to intercept it. That's probably a fair belief.

SUTHERLAND: But he adds, any real attack, rather than a one-off test, would be very different.

Mr. PIKE: You start talking about lots of warheads, lots of decoys, that's something they have not demonstrated, would not have a capability to do that soon.

SUTHERLAND: One of the systems deployed in Hawaii is called, in acronym Pentagon speak, THAAD - Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

Philip Coyle is with the Center for Defense Information. He used to be in charge of testing for the Pentagon.

Mr. PHILIP COYLE (Senior Advisor, Center for Defense Information): In recent tests, since about 2006, THAAD has been batting six for six - six successes for six tries. Back when I was at the Pentagon, it had a terrible record. It had six failures in a row.

SUTHERLAND: Other systems have been deployed off Hawaii as well, like the Sea-Based X-Band Radar, known as the SBX. It looks like a giant golf ball, a 10-stories tall giant golf ball that sits on a modified floating oil platform. It's gone to sea to provide better eyes for missile defenses. There're also ground-based interceptors in Alaska that are designed to hit missiles in midflight.

But besides their confidence, none of these systems has ever been used in a real life attack. But deploying missile defenses isn't just about actually shooting down missiles. Everyone is hoping they don't have to try, but it's also about sending a message, or more accurately, multiple messages and not just to the North Koreans.

Again, John Pike.

Mr. PIKE: I think we're also signaling the Japanese that they should trust their missile defense system, because we trust it as well. Because if the Japanese decided that they didn't trust their missile defense system, then they'd start looking around to get nuclear weapons. And that would set off a regional arms race, both nuclear and conventional.

SUTHERLAND: Some North Korean missile tests have over flown Japan. And while estimates on just how fast the Japanese could manufacture nukes varies, it almost certainly wouldn't take long. They have plenty of plutonium from their civilian nuclear program.

But Pike says there is one more player Secretary Gates may be talking to as well on the other side of the world.

Mr. PIKE: I think it's also playing into the upcoming summit with Medvedev and Obama.

SUTHERLAND: The U.S. wants to deploy missile defenses in Central Europe -something the Russians have said is a nonstarter in any arms reduction talks. President Obama will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev next month.

Mr. PIKE: I think that this is a way of sending a message to the Russians that missile defense is something that the Americans believe in, as an appropriate response to threats from North Korea and Iran.

SUTHERLAND: And not capable of thwarting Russia's massive missile arsenal. And those other audience may, in a way, be more important than North Korea. As Philip Coyle says, an actual attack on the U.S. is unlikely.

Mr. COYLE: If they did, it would justify massive retaliation to, you know, just absolutely huge retaliation.

SUTHERLAND: Coyle says he just doesn't think North Korea is that suicidal.

J.J. Sutherland, NPR News.

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