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

The United States has deployed missile defense systems in anticipation of a possible North Korean missile test that may be aimed in the direction of Hawaii. Missile defense has had problems over the years, with failed tests or tests that employed only easy scenarios.

Now, the Obama administration and the military seem confident that missile defense is up to the task.

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.


"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," Gates said.

As a result of those concerns, Gates has ordered the deployment of a number of missile defenses — and he seems confident they will do the job.

"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," he said.

John Pike is a defense analyst and director of He says that confidence may be justified.

Against a single incoming warhead that is not accompanied by decoys, U.S. missile defense would, more likely than not, be successful, Pike says.


But, he adds, any real attack — with multiple warheads and decoys, rather than a one-off test — would be very different.

The U.S. would not have the capability to do that soon, he says.

One of the systems deployed in Hawaii is called THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information previously oversaw missile defense testing for the Pentagon during the Clinton administration.

Since about 2006, Coyle says, THAAD has passed six tests, in six tries.

"Back when I was at the Pentagon, it had a terrible record — six failures in a row," he says.

Other systems have been deployed off Hawaii as well, such as the Sea-Based X-Band Radar, known as the SBX. It looks like a giant, 10-story-tall golf ball that sits on a modified floating oil platform; at sea, the radar will provide better "eyes" for missile defenses.

There are also ground-based interceptors in Alaska that are designed to hit missiles in midflight.

However, none of these systems has ever been used in a real attack.

But deploying missile defenses isn't just about actually shooting down missiles, it is also about conveying multiple messages.

Pike, of, says the U.S. is also signaling the Japanese that they should trust their missile defense system because Washington does as well.

"Because if the Japanese decided 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," Pike warns.

Some North Korean missile tests have flown over Japan. Estimates vary on how fast the Japanese could manufacture nuclear arms, but the process almost certainly wouldn't take long since they have plenty of plutonium from their civilian nuclear program.

But Pike says there is one more player the defense secretary may be talking to as well: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who will meet with President Obama next month.

The U.S. wants to deploy missile defenses in Central Europe, which the Russians have said is a nonstarter in any arms reduction talks.

"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," Pike says.

Those other audiences may, in a way, be more important than North Korea. As Coyle, of the Center for Defense Information says, an actual attack on the U.S. is unlikely.

"If they did, it would justify massive retaliation," he says, adding he doesn't think North Korea is that suicidal.

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