Can US defend against North Korea missiles? Not everyone agrees

WASHINGTON, July 5 (Reuters) - Not everybody asserts as confidently as the Pentagon that the U.S. military can defend the United States from the growing threat posed by North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile capability.

Pyongyang's first test on Tuesday of an ICBM with a potential to strike the state of Alaska has raised the question: How capable is the U.S. military of knocking down an incoming missile or barrage of missiles?

Briefing reporters on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said: "We do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there."

Davis cited a successful test in May in which a U.S.-based missile interceptor knocked down a simulated incoming North Korean ICBM. But he acknowledged the test program's track program was not perfect.

"It's something we have mixed results on. But we also have an ability to shoot more than one interceptor," Davis said.

An internal memo seen by Reuters also showed that the Pentagon upgraded its assessment of U.S. defenses after the May test.

Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on a multi-layered missile defense system, the United States may not be able to seal itself off entirely from a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile attack.

Experts caution that U.S. missile defenses are now geared to shooting down one, or perhaps a small number of basic, incoming missiles. Were North Korea's technology and production to keep advancing, U.S. defenses could be overwhelmed unless they keep pace with the threat.

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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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"Over the next four years, the United States has to increase its current capacity of our deployed systems, aggressively push for more and faster deployment," said Riki Ellison, founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

MIXED RESULTS

The test records of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), charged with the mission to develop, test and field a ballistic missile defense system, also show mixed results.

MDA systems have multiple layers and ranges and use sensors in space at sea and on land that altogether form a defense for different U.S. regions and territories.

One component, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), demonstrated a success rate just above 55 percent. A second component, the Aegis system deployed aboard U.S. Navy ships and on land, had about an 83 percent success rate, according to the agency.

A third, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system, has a 100 percent success rate in 13 tests conducted since 2006, according to the MDA.

Lockheed Martin Corp is the prime contractor for THAAD and Aegis. Boeing Co is the lead contractor for GMD.

Since President Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s, the U.S. government has spent more than $200 billion to develop and field a range of ballistic missile defense systems ranging from satellite detection to the sea-based Aegis system, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Funding for MDA was on average $8.12 billion during President Barack Obama's administration that ended on Jan. 20. President Donald Trump has requested $7.8 billion for fiscal year 2018.

'ANOTHER YEAR OR TWO'

Last month, Vice Admiral James Syring, then director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a congressional panel that North Korean advancements in the past six months had caused him great concern.

U.S.-based missile expert John Schilling, a contributor to the Washington-based North Korea monitoring project 38 North said the pace of North Korea's missile development was quicker than expected.

"However, it will probably require another year or two of development before this missile can reliably and accurately hit high-value continental U.S. targets, particularly if fired under wartime conditions," he said.

Michael Elleman, a fellow for Missile Defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that although North Korea was several steps from creating a dependable ICBM, "There are absolutely no guarantees" the United States can protect itself.

In missile defense, "Even if it had a test record of 100 percent, there are no guarantees."

(Reporting by Mike Stone; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Chris Sanders, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)

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