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Worries over US' ability to counter North Korean missiles

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WASHINGTON: Not everybody asserts as confidently as the Pentagon that the US military can defend the United States from the growing threat posed by North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.

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

Yesterday, 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."

Capt Davis cited a successful test in May in which a US-based missile interceptor knocked down a simulated incoming North Korean ICBM.

But he acknowledged the US' missile defence capabilities were not perfect.

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

An internal memo seen by Reuters also showed that the Pentagon upgraded its assessment of US defences after the May test.

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

Experts caution that US missile defences 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, US defences could be overwhelmed unless they keep pace with the threat.

"Over the next four years, the US has to increase the current capacity of our deployed systems, aggressively push for more and faster deployment," said Riki Ellison, founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

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

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