June 16, 2006

Fledgling US missile shield largely unproven

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Reports that North Korea is
preparing to test fire a long-range missile have drawn renewed
scrutiny of U.S. efforts to build a reliable system to
intercept such missiles, which is still not fully working.

Washington has built up a complex of interceptor missiles,
advanced radar stations and data relays designed to detect and
shoot down a North Korean warhead, but tests of the system have
had mixed results.

The Pentagon's testing office said in January it may offer
only "some" protection, despite about $10 billion a year in
development spending under President George W. Bush.

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

"When and if the missile-defense system is in an
operational status, it has a capability against a limited
long-range ballistic missile attack," said Rick Lehner, a
spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

Bush told the military in 2002 to field an initial
missile-defense capability by the end of 2004.

It was to be a very limited version of a far more
comprehensive space-based missile defense shield -- nicknamed
Star Wars -- proposed by the late President Ronald Reagan in
the 1980s.


The test failures and technical challenges have delayed
plans to declare it operational, although commanders say it has
a rudimentary capability against a limited missile attack.

The system could be put on alert quickly if U.S. leaders
determined there was a sudden threat, defense officials say.

U.S. officials have said North Korea is preparing to
test-fire a Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile with
an estimated range of 3,500 to 4,300 kms (2,175 to 2,670 miles)
as early as this weekend, based on monitored launch-area

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack warned North
Korea on Friday against conducting a "provocative" test and
said "we will take necessary preparatory steps to track any
potential activities and to protect ourselves."

U.S. spending on missile defenses soared after Pyongyang
surprised U.S. intelligence by firing a multi-stage Taepodong-1
missile over Japan and into the Pacific on August 31, 1998.

The United States has installed nine interceptors in Alaska
and two in California. In addition, U.S. Navy cruisers and
destroyers with long-range tracking and surveillance capability
ply the Sea of Japan.

Boeing Co. is the prime contractor for the system's
ground-based leg. Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman
Corp., Raytheon Co. and Orbital Sciences Corp. have big related

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who oversees missile defense
as head of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in a published
interview last month he was including ship-based interceptors
and the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) anti-missile
batteries in the overall system.