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Why Doesn't The US Intercept North Korean Missiles? Maybe It Can't

Why Doesn't The US Intercept North Korean Missiles? Maybe It Can't

There is serious disagreement among defense experts about whether the United States has the tech to knock a North Korean missile out of the sky before it brings hellfire down on a friendly target.

The head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, told a symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, last month he’s pretty confident anti-missile technology can take out the latest North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, the trajectory of which takes it out of the atmosphere before it comes down and explodes.

“We believe that the currently deployed ballistic missile defense system can meet today’s threat,” he said, according to the nonprofit Defense Tech think tank.

Other Experts Call U.S. Claims Baloney

Greaves has trumpeted a July test in which an anti-missile rocket launched from Alaska took out a decoy ICBM near Hawaii.

The agency said it was the 14th successful intercept in 14 attempts for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense weapon system, a mobile launcher capable of intercepting ballistic missiles inside or outside the atmosphere during their final phase of flight.

The THAAD is manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE: LMT). It carries no warhead, instead relying on the kinetic energy of impact to destroy the incoming missile. A kinetic energy hit won’t set off a nuke warhead.

Related Link: Ready, Aim, Fire: Northrop Best Bet To Profit From Overhaul Of U.S. Air Power

Joe Cirincione, an analyst with the authoritative Defense One trade journal, was adamant in a column Sunday in saying that the Pentagon was overstating its capabilities. Last week, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the second to soar over Japan in less than a month.

“The number one reason we don’t shoot down North Korea’s missiles is that we cannot,” he wrote. “Officials like to reassure their publics about our defense to these missiles. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told his nation after last week’s test, ‘We didn’t intercept it because no damage to Japanese territory was expected.”’

The True Test May Be Beyond Comprehension

Cirincione’s basic argument? The North Korean missiles fly too high. He said the apogee of the flight path over Japan last Friday was 475 miles. “None of the theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high,” he wrote.

Besides the THAAD, the U.S. missile defense network consists of Aegis missile system deployed on U.S. Navy ships off Japan, which have had a fairly dodgy track record in tests. Japan also hosts the Patriot system made by Raytheon Company (NYSE: RTN).

“All of these are basically designed to hit a missile in the post-mid-course or terminal phase, when it is on its way down, coming more or less straight at the defending system,” Cirincione wrote. “Patriot is meant to protect relatively small areas such as ports or air bases; THAAD defends a larger area; the advanced Aegis system theoretically could defend thousands of square kilometers.”

He said an Aegis ship would have to be deployed near the launch point, almost within North Korean waters, to have a puncher’s chance of knocking out a nuke.

“Even then,it would have to chase the missile, a race it is unlikely to win,” he wrote. “In the only one or two minutes of warning time any system would have, the probability of a successful engagement drops close to zero.”

Related Link: Rocket Expert: North Korea’s New Missiles Powered By Black Market, Soviet-Era Engines

Image Credit: By U.S. Navy - Missile Defense Agency tests an interceptor., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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