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Korea's missiles move within striking distance

Created on March 4, 2009

Korea's missiles move within striking distance

White House talks down missile defense despite upbeat test results

The Obama administration continues to question the workability of America's still-developing defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Yet the U.S. commander in the Pacific said in late February that if North Korea tests a new long-range missile, the military not only would track it but could well blow the missile out of the sky if President Barack Obama gave the order.

"And [if] we hit what we're aiming at, that should be a source of great confidence and reassurance to our allies and partners," Adm. Timothy Keating, who heads Hawaii-based Pacific Command, told ABC News.

Not to mention ordinary Americans. After all, if North Korea, Iran or another foe someday were to fire a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile at the United States, it could reach and obliterate a targeted cityin 33 minutes or less.

That's no more time than it takes for those ordinary Americans to get a pizza delivered, notes Kim Holmes, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.

"In less time, if [the missile] detonated high above the homeland, its electromagnetic pulse would incapacitate everything from ATMs and hospital equipment to traffic lights and computers for thousands of miles," Holmes writes. "Life would never be the same."

Heritage recently premiered "33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age," the think tank's plain-talking, nonpartisan documentary film on the need to counter the growing threat of missile attack. As Holmes says, many Americans don't realize what technology exists -- or that large sections of the country, as well as our allies, remain unprotected.

North Korea's communist regime has insisted it's merely preparing to send a satellite into space. As the experts know, though, a nation that can fire a rocket to put a satellite into orbit -- as Iran did a few weeks ago -- is on the way to hitting a target anywhere on Earth with a warhead.

U.S. and South Korea officials, an Agence France-Presse dispatch underscores, contend North Korea's "real purpose is to test a missile which could theoretically reach the state of Alaska."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wasn't as reassuring as Adm. Keating sounded. President Obama, Gibbs said March 3, is going to weigh various factors in deciding whether to keep developing a missile-defense system, "including whether or not the system worked."

In fact, Heritage missile-defense expert Baker Spring says, the Missile Defense Agency's field tests put the success rate for "hit-to-kill" technology at roughly 80 percent.  MDA interceptors shot down target missiles in 38 of 47 attempts since 2001.

The more discouraging word from the White House followed news reports that Obama delivered a secret letter in February to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In the letter, Obama suggests America would have no reason to build the European portion of our missile-defense system if Russia -- which vehemently opposes such a missile shield -- were to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Iran continues efforts to make nuclear weapons, as well as missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the United States. Iran isn't likely to say "yes" to pressure from its Russian ally to scrap those programs,blogs Heritage national security expert James Jay Carafano.

North Korea, another rogue state, already has nukes. It shares technical know-how with Iran while developing its own long-range delivery systems.

In separate trips abroad before disclosure of Obama's secret letter to Moscow, Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton both repeated Obama's contention, while a presidential candidate, that missile defenses are unproven or unworkable or too expensive.

In the latest U.S. military exercise on Dec. 5, a "kill vehicle" hurtled over the Pacific Ocean to intercept and blow up a missile 1,800 miles into its flight from Alaska to California.

Adm. Keating, for one, appears encouraged as he prepares for a new North Korean missile test. The head of Pacific Command said U.S. ships carrying interceptors are ready "on a moment's notice," ABC reported Feb. 26.

"We will be fully prepared to respond as the president directs," Keating said.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is Heritage's expert on Korea, writes: "A successful launch of a missile theoretically capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead would reverse perceptions of a diminishing North Korean military threat."

As Klingner notes, though, a launch looms as a "high-risk gambit" for Pyongyang because of the failure of its two previous tests, in 1998 and 2006, of Taepodong-class missiles.

America, however, has so much more at stake.

"The surest way for the administration to set itself up for a colossal crisis is to abandon missile defense," Carafano warns. "To do so in the face of provocative actions by tinhorn tyrants in Iran and North Korea -- or in response to mere complaints from Russia -- is to look weak and inept. And that would invite disaster."