- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

The general in charge of developing a U.S. missile defense expressed confidence yesterday that the system would be able to shoot down an intercontinental missile should North Korea fire a three-stage rocket and the flight path threaten the United States.

“From what I’ve seen from our testing from the last several years … and what I know about the system and its capabilities, I’m very confident,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. “Trey” Obering III told Reuters news service.

The prediction keeps the pressure on the Stalinist regime, which U.S. intelligence specialists think is preparing to launch a long-range Taepodong-2 missile at a test facility in northeastern North Korea.

Gen. Obering’s remark came the day after his Missile Defense Agency executed the seventh successful test of a sea-launched interceptor off the coast of Hawaii. While not necessarily timed for the current crisis, the Pacific Ocean test showed North Korea in dramatic fashion that the U.S. is ready to fire sea- or land-based interceptors to knock down a warhead during what is called the “mid-term stage” outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Earlier, on Thursday, White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said President Bush is prepared to order an intercept if necessary. Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry urged the administration to respond to any launch with an air strike to destroy the new version of the multistage Taepodong-2.

The U.S., along with allies, is now engaged in extensive talks with North Korea to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its development of nuclear weapons. It is thought to already have two to four warheads. Analysts say the regime may be moving to launch a missile capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction as a way to somehow improve its current bargaining position. The new type of Taepodong-2 missile is thought to have a range of more than 5,000 miles, meaning it could reach Alaska or even the West Coast.

The U.S. acknowledges there is much it does not know about North Korea’s intentions. Satellite photos have detected fuel trucks at the missile site, but it is not clear how much actual preparation has been made and any actual payload is also unknown. It conceivably could be a satellite North Korea wants to put into orbit, or a dummy warhead typically used in testing.

“It’s very, very difficult to understand what they may have, how it may perform,” the Associated Press quoted Gen. Obering as saying.

It is that uncertainty that has the Bush administration actively debating under what circumstances to try to shoot the missile down. One possible risk would be that the interceptor misses the North Korean missile, exposing the defense system as severely flawed.

Asked by CNN about the option of destroying the Taepodong-2 on the launch pad, Vice President Dick Cheney said, “I think at this stage we are addressing the issue in the proper fashion. And I think, obviously, if you’re going to launch a strike at another nation you’d better be prepared to not just fire one shot. … I think the issue is being addressed appropriately.”

The limited U.S. missile defense system today includes 11 ground-base interceptors in Alaska and Standard Missile-3s aboard Aegis-class cruisers at sea.

Japan, which cringed as North Korea test-fired a Taepodong above its territory in 1998, has joined the defense system by agreeing to host a huge high-resolution tracking radar, now in use.

Yesterday, Japan and the U.S. moved to strengthen the cooperation by signing new agreements on joint research.

On Thursday’s successful sea-launched interceptor, Gen. Obering said, “We are continuing to see great success with the very challenging technology of hit-to-kill — a technology that is used for all of our missile defense ground- and sea-based interceptor missiles.”

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