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North Korean missiles: Could US shoot them down? (+video)

The Pentagon has been deploying more missile-defense ground batteries and ships to East Asia. Here's a rundown of the three-tiered system that the US could use to counter North Korean missiles.

By Staff writer / April 9, 2013

The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain sails in formation during exercise Foal Eagle 2013 in March. The Pentagon has deployed more missile-defense ground batteries and ships to East Asia, in part to reassure South Korea and Japan that Washington remains committed to their protection.

Courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes/ U.S. Navy/Reuters/File

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How capable are US missile defenses? That’s a key question for the United States and its allies as tensions remain bowstring tight on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has moved several missiles – likely medium-range Musudans – to its east coast for possible test firing. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has deployed more missile-defense ground batteries and ships to the region, in part to reassure South Korea and Japan that Washington remains committed to their protection.

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“We have demonstrated to the people of the region, demonstrated to the leadership of North Korea, our ability and willingness to defend our nation, our people, our allies, and our forward-deployed forces,” said Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of US Pacific Command, during a Tuesday appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If Pyongyang decides to lob a short- or medium-range missile toward the Sea of Japan, could these US forces shoot it down? “Probably” is perhaps the best answer here. The systems involved are among the most mature of US missile-defense efforts. US officials point out that their recent test records have been reasonably good.

But some outside experts remain unconvinced that the US missile shield in this instance is that great.

“If the US tried to shoot down a test missile the intercept might succeed, mainly because in a test North Korea would presumably not seek to make any effort to evade the attempted intercept,” writes Tom Z. Collina, research director for Arms Control Association, in an e-mail. “But in a real missile attack North Korea could be expected to use decoys and countermeasures that US defenses would not be able to handle.”

Mr. Collina adds that shooting down a test missile headed to open ocean simply to prove that the US could do it would be “very provocative and ill-advised.”

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona urged just that on Monday, telling Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin, “If they launched a missile, we should take it out. It’s best to show them what some of our capabilities are.”

US missile defenses in East Asia are essentially a three-tiered system of systems.

The first line of defense would be Navy Aegis-equipped warships located in regional waters. The Aegis radar and fire control system can track ballistic missile targets during the mid-course portion of their flight. Its Standard Missiles are the latest version of a long-deployed weapon. They are designed to destroy missiles as high as outside the atmosphere via kinetic means. In other words, they just run into their targets.

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