- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Amid evidence indicating that the Stalinist North Korean regime may have completed the fueling of its most advanced long-range missile, the Taepodong-2, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) whose range could place our West Coast in jeopardy, the Pentagon recently activated its new ground-based interceptor-missile defense system. Bill Gertz, national-security and intelligence correspondent for The Washington Times, reported yesterday that the Pentagon switched the U.S. anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system from test to operational mode.

The current ABM system features 11 long-range, ground-based interceptor missiles. Nine are based at Fort Greely in Alaska and two are deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Each of the interceptors can launch an exoatmospheric kill vehicle capable of intercepting a warhead traveling more than 15,000 mph in the midcourse phase of an ICBM’s trajectory.

Lasting about 20 minutes, the midcourse phase of an ICBM follows the three-to-five -minute boost phase, which is the ideal time to destroy any ballistic missile — i.e., before the missile warhead can achieve the velocity necessary to reach its target. Unfortunately, the United States currently has no capability of destroying an ICBM in its boost phase, in part because the eight-year Clinton administration had so little interest pursuing missile defense. In fact, presidential funding requests for missile defense steadily declined from an average of $5.3 billion (fiscal years 1992 and 1993) to $2.6 billion in 1998, when the Rumsfeld commission alerted the nation to the ballistic-missile threat posed by North Korea and other rogue states. Indeed, North Korea launched an earlier version of the Taepodong missile, which flew over Japan, the month after the Rumsfeld commission issued its report.

A U.S. satellite would initially detect an ICBM launched by North Korea. Sea-based sensors aboard two Navy Aegis warships patrolling near North Korea would help to track the warhead, as would a recently upgraded radar system on Shemya Island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain. (Later this year, a highly sophisticated mobile sea-based X-band radar will be fully integrated into the ABM system.)

Eventually the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system will have the capability to defend against ICBMs. Last month, the Navy successfully conducted its first sea-based intercept of a ballistic missile in its terminal phase (the last few seconds of its flight following the midcourse phase). U.S. allies in Europe and Asia should also take comfort in the fact that Aegis will soon be able to intercept short- and medium-range missiles in the ascent and descent phases of a warhead’s midcourse flight. Emergency engagement capability against short- and medium-range missiles has already been installed on two Aegis cruisers, and operational capability should be achieved before year’s end.

White House spokesman Tony Snow revealed Monday that President Bush has telephoned more than a dozen foreign leaders regarding North Korea’s launch preparations. We hope those important conversations included updates on the success America is achieving in defending against ballistic missiles that directly threaten our allies.

If and when the world observes in action the strategic U.S. advances in missile defense, the United States should have a much stronger case to make to European, Mideastern and Asian nations to support U.S. diplomatic initiatives against rogue and other hostile states.

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