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An SM-3 interceptor rises from a U.S. Navy Aegis cruiser in 2002. Sea-based defenses are attractive for intercepting shorter-range threats in their midcourse phase. (Missile Defense Agency)

Can We Stop a Nuke?

From the impossible dream of a space-based shield, missile defense has come down to Earth. But will it work?

Coyle’s real target is not just the system’s technological flaws, but the entire strategic justification for missile defense. Success, he argues, could be more dangerous than failure.

Consider China, he says: “If they believe, like we hope North Korea would believe, that we have a missile defense that works, they’re likely to do what Russia did many years ago, which is build hundreds or thousands of warheads and ICBMs so they can overwhelm the most futuristic missile defense system we can imagine.”

Obering himself agrees that the system he’s fielding will not have “operational capability” until it can handle multiple missiles. But a “rudimentary capability,” in Pentagon parlance, is the first step toward an operational system. Obering says the rudimentary system in place now could shoot down a nuke—if it is coming alone.

“Do we have confidence that the system as deployed today could knock down that [Taep’o-dong 2] that was launched last summer?” Obering says. “The answer is ‘yes’ because we had the sensor coverage, and we had sufficient inventory of interceptors to handle that missile.”

He continues: “Now, if the North Koreans had launched 10 or 15 missiles at us in a wave, could the system handle that? That’s a different question.”

Since late 2004, the Pentagon has been installing interceptors and training soldiers to control them. Brigadier General Patrick O’Reilly, deputy director of the MDA, says the number of interceptors in Alaska could grow to 21 by the year’s end and to 40 by 2011.

Obering is counting on new sensors to aid his misson. Among the most powerful will be the 30-story-high, Sea-Based X-band Radar (SBX), an instrument so powerful, he says, it is able to track and image a baseball flying from the Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco (see “How Things Work: Phased Array Radar,” June/July 2006).

If SBX works as advertised, it could make Obering’s life much easier. “If I can discriminate what precisely is a warhead, I only need to put maybe one interceptor on that target,” he says.

In early January, the massive radar steamed north to show it would be able to operate through the famously rough winters along the Aleutian Islands, which are in the likely path of a North Korean missile.

Another headache has been negotiating siting rights for fixed radars, and deciding where they should be built based on intelligence about future threats.

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