Can America's Missile Defense Handle North Korea?

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A missile is launched from the USS Shiloh during a ballistic missile flight test in the Pacific Ocean. In this case, the test was successful. The missile intercepted a threat target launched from a naval facility in Hawaii.

North Korea reportedly test-launched at least three missiles early Wednesday, including one of its long-range Taepodong-2 missiles. And though indications were the test failed in midair, the news — combined with more saber-rattling earlier this week from Pyongyang, which warned it would respond with an "annihilating strike and a nuclear war" to any U.S. preemptive attack — won't do much to calm Washington's concern over North Korea's steady march to strategic nuclear capability. The Taepodong-2 is believed by U.S. intelligence to have three stages, which would could allow its payload to reach anywhere in the U.S. And that prospect has brought back into sharp focus the debate over U.S. missile defense, which had been largely obscured since September 11, 2001.

Since President Reagan launched the latest generation of U.S. missile defenses in 1983, envisioning an impregnable missile shield over the U.S., the nation has spent $91 billion (with $58 billion more slated to be spent over the next six years) to protect the country from missile attack. But his ambitious hopes to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" have been dramatically downsized. Reagan envisioned a network of satellites, sensors and even space-based weapons capable of thwarting a massive missile strike from the Soviet Union or China. But with the Cold War's end, the scale of the threat has also been reduced to that posed by a handful of "rogue states" with the means to develop such weapons and the mentality to brandish, or even launch them, toward the U.S.

It's a good thing the threat has diminished, because the technological challenge of building a missile shield has turned out to far more daunting than originally thought. In a series of scripted $100 million tests, 155-pound interceptors have destroyed dummy warheads in just five out of 10 tries between 1999 and 2005. The two most recent tests failed when the boosters designed to lob the interceptors into space failed to launch. After spending a year beefing up quality control, two tests are planned for later this year. Despite the system's shakiness, the White House in 2002 ordered the Pentagon to build it, citing "the contemporary and emerging missile threat from hostile states." Because of the perceived urgency, the Pentagon relaxed its normal procurement rules and testing requirements.

Since late 2004, U.S. military missile-defense forces have been monitoring the skies, ready to move to a higher level of alert and try to shoot down any ballistic missile headed toward the U.S. "We've had the war fighters on the system for almost two years now, 24/7," Army Lieutenant General Larry Dodgen, head of the Army's space and missile defense command, told a Senate panel in April. "We have contingency capabilities that our nation can call on."

It's what Pentagon officials call "a thin line of defense" that's equal parts James Bond and Rube Goldberg. There are 11 interceptors ready to launch from silos in Alaska and California, cued to their targets by arrays of satellites and shipboard sensors all linked through a Colorado command center. The Pentagon wants 48 interceptors by 2011, including 10 in Europe — the Czech Republic and Poland are likely sites — oriented toward any threat from Iran. While the system generally isn't on full alert — meaning ready to fire its interceptors — Pentagon officials said last week the system had been cranked up to monitor, and if necessary, respond to, a possible North Korean launch headed toward the U.S.

The system, however, has failed to impress either its critics or its supporters. Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester for six years until 2001, says the shield is "a scarecrow defense" of unproven value. Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation, a long-time backer, bemoans what he sees as Administration foot-dragging. "They are so scared of test failures," he says, "they're not moving forward as fast as they can."

Shooting down a missile is no walk in the park. As the interceptor and target approach each other at six miles a second, the smallest problem means failure. A 2002 test bombed after the interceptor didn't separate from its booster. The reason: A single pin on a tiny integrated circuit broke after being violently shaken during the flight. Foam that had been there to protect the pin on prior flights had been removed, supposedly to improve the system's reliability. A 2004 test failed because an error in one line of computer code kept the interceptor grounded. The most recent failure, in February 2005, happened after two of the three arms that hold the interceptor in place in its silo didn't fully retract during launch because a part had corroded. The Missile Defense Agency penalized the Boeing Co., the system's developer, $107 million for the string of snafus. Pentagon audits also slammed Raytheon Corp., which builds the $40 million interceptor, for shoddy work. "The contractor cannot build a consistent and reliable product," the GAO said in a March report.

The Pentagon wants to leapfrog problems with the current interceptor by developing a new one. After trying for years to develop an interceptor that could discriminate between warheads and decoys — and kill only the warhead — it has given up on that goal. Instead, it wants to spend $2.4 billion through 2011 developing a "Multiple Kill Vehicle" that will unleash a dozen or more mini-interceptors to destroy all potential warheads. "This reduces the burden on sensors and algorithms, which no longer need to be programmed to select one, best target," the Pentagon says. Of course, a better interceptor won't be worth much if the booster designed to hurl it into space stays stuck in its silo because of rusty parts or sloppy software.

With reporting by Sally B. Donnelly/Washington and Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas