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North Korean Actions Raise Stakes for US Missile Defense

A Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 13, 2013.A Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 13, 2013.
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A Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 13, 2013.
A Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 13, 2013.
Mike Richman
North Korea's latest nuclear test, coupled with its successful long-range rocket launch in December, is prompting renewed attention to the state of U.S. missile defenses.

Following its nuclear test on Tuesday, North Korea claimed it had built a "smaller and light" bomb. If that's true, Pyongyang is one step closer to developing an atomic warhead small enough to fit atop one of its long-range missiles.

The United States has been working for years to make sure that it will be able to intercept such a missile if one is ever fired at its territory. Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently told CNN the U.S. has a strong missile defense system that can "guard against that kind of potential."

He was referring to about 30 ground-based missile interceptors, almost all of which are deployed in Alaska. The interceptors were developed during the administration of former President George W. Bush in response to North Korea's ballistic missile program.

Effectiveness of U.S. Interceptors

Two Washington-based analysts told VOA they are not sure how effective the interceptors will be.

“These interceptors in Alaska and California are believed to have some capability against a rudimentary intercontinental ballistic missile warhead of the kind that you would expect North Korea to have initially," said Steven Pifer, head of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "But how good they would actually be, we don’t know. But there is some capability to protect America already deployed.”

James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said it is impossible to evaluate the interceptors without access to classified information.

"Based on what's available in the public domain, I would say an intercept is certainly possible, but not guaranteed," said Acton.  

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called North Korea's nuclear test a "provocation" and said the United States is strengthening its missile defense system.

Pifer said plans are underway to build more missile silos in Alaska. Also, the U.S. Navy has a missile called the SM3 that can intercept short- to medium-range ballistic missiles.

According to Acton, the Obama administration has been focusing on stationing interceptors in northeast Asia to defend against North Korean missiles and conventional shorter-range Chinese missiles. He said the administration also has been working on a defense system in Europe to defend allies, and in the longer run the continental U.S., from Iranian missiles.

Strategic Defense Initiative

In 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, a space-based anti-missile program. He envisioned a system capable of destroying Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles high above the Earth before they could reach the U.S.

The program was dubbed "Star Wars," after the popular American movie released in 1977.

SDI was abandoned several years later, partly because of technological and budget constraints. But Pifer said elements of "Star Wars" still exist.

“When you look at some of the concepts that are involved in the ground-based interceptors that are in Alaska and California, and in the SM3 interceptor missile which is now aboard Navy ships," said Pifer, "certainly the concept of having an interceptor that uses an infrared sensor to detect a warhead in the cold blackness of space, then basically fly the interceptor into the target, that has its roots going back to some of the thinking and some of the work that was done under the Strategic Defense Initiative in the Reagan years.”

Most analysts believe North Korea is several years away from developing a missile that can hit the United States, but that improvements in the missile defense program will remain a top U.S. priority.

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