June 20, 2006

US activates missile defense amid N. Korea concern

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has activated its
ground-based interceptor missile-defense system amid concerns
over an expected North Korean missile launch, a U.S. defense
official said on Tuesday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed
a Washington Times report that the Pentagon has switched the
multibillion-dollar system from test mode to operational, after
being in the developmental stage for years.

"It's good to be ready," the official said.

Asked whether the United States would try to shoot down a
North Korean missile, Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff
declined to answer directly.

"We have a limited missile defense system," Ruff said. "We
don't discuss the alert status or the specific capabilities."

U.S. Northern Command spokesman Michael Kucharek declined
to comment on the alert status of the ground-based
interceptors, but said, "As the command tasked with homeland
defense, U.S. Northern Command is prepared to do what is
necessary to defend this nation," on land, sea, air and in

The United States has built up a complex of interceptor
missiles, advanced radar stations and data relays designed to
detect and shoot down an enemy missile, but tests of the system
have had mixed results.

The system is based on the concept of using one missile to
shoot down another before it can reach its target.

The United States has installed nine interceptor missiles
in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and two at Vandenberg Air
Force Base in California. In addition, U.S. Navy vessels with
long-range tracking and surveillance capability ply the Sea of

"There's real caution in how to characterize it so as to
not be provocative in our own approach," the defense official
said of the move to activate the U.S. system.

U.S. officials say evidence such as satellite pictures
suggests North Korea may have finished fueling a Taepodong-2
missile, which some experts said could reach as far as Alaska.
The Pentagon and State Department have said a North Korean
missile launch would be seen as provocative.

Creation of a missile defense system has been a goal of
many U.S. conservatives dating back to a space-based plan
envisioned two decades ago under President Ronald Reagan.

In eight intercept tests of the U.S. ground-based missile
defense system, the interceptor has hit a mock incoming warhead
five times. Such testing was suspended after interceptors
failed to leave their silos during tests in December 2004 and
February 2005 -- failures blamed on quality-control issues.

(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts and Jim Wolf)