U.S. Can Intercept North Korean Ballistic Missiles, General Says

The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on Thursday said the United States is prepared to counter potential ballistic missile strikes from North Korea, the Yonhap News Agency reported (see GSN, April 1).

At a Capitol Hill Hearing, Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly responded to a question on the abilities of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which is intended to protect the country from a long-range ballistic missile attack. The last two intercept tests of the system have been failures (see GSN, Dec. 17, 2010).

"We have two versions of the GMD missile," O'Reilly said. "The first version is called capability enhancement No. 1 and it's the kill vehicle that has performed five times on flight, has done very well, three intercept attempts and it's intercepted three times."

The system's long-range interceptors are deployed at bases in California and Alaska. Past interception tests have fired missiles from Kodiak, Alaska, with the interceptors launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., according to O'Reilly.

"That roughly equates to the geometry of a launch out of North Korea and an intercept coming out of Fort Greely, Alaska," the MDA head said. "So for those type of scenarios and for that system, the CE-1, we remain to have confidence in the system based on the data we've seen."

The Defense Department in 2005 began a follow-up version to the missile kill component, O'Reilly said. "We redesigned the system, upgraded it, and actually gave a greater sensitivity and greater capability. However, it failed on the first flight test due to a quality control problem. We corrected that quality control problem and in the second flight it didn't happen."

In 2009, the Pentagon scaled back a program that would have boosted the number of GMD interceptors from 30 to 44. Defense officials maintain that 30 interceptors is adequate for eliminating any potential North Korean missile attack "for some years to come" (see GSN, May 22, 2009).

Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Bradley Roberts told congressional lawmakers on Thursday the Pentagon had been enhancing the midcourse defense system to counter "the threats that might emerge from states like North Korea and Iran to conduct limited strikes on the United States."

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pyongyang was within half a decade of fielding a ballistic missile that could strike the continental United States (Hwang Doo-hyong, Yonhap News Agency I, April 1).

Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has put forth a bill that would once again place North Korea on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Yonhap reported (see GSN, Feb. 4, 2010).

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's legislation cites the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the November artillery barrage of a South Korean island as grounds for the redesignation. The two incidents killed 50 South Koreans.

The bill's full text was not available on Monday but it has eight co-sponsors from both parties, according to the Library of Congress.

North Korea was formally taken off the State Department list in October 2008 as part of efforts by the Bush administration to help prod the Stalinist state toward denuclearization. The process stalled after the last round of talks in December of that year.

Ros-Lehtinen submitted a bill last year that would have reclassified North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, but the legislation failed to pass. Her party has since gained control of the House of Representatives.

The State Department has said it sees no indication of Pyongyang in recent years supporting terrorists or carrying out acts of terrorism.

"North Korea right now does not meet the statutory criteria to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism," State Department counterterrorism office coordinator Daniel Benjamin recently said. "The information we have does not show the D.P.R.K. repeatedly providing support for international terrorism since the designation was rescinded" (Hwang Doo-hyong, Yonhap News Agency II, April 3).

April 4, 2011

The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on Thursday said the United States is prepared to counter potential ballistic missile strikes from North Korea, the Yonhap News Agency reported (see GSN, April 1).