June 3, 2009 / 12:20 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. improves ability to hit N.Korean missiles: general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has fine-tuned its ability to shoot down long-range missiles that could be launched by North Korea based on a trio of tests mimicking such an attack, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said Tuesday.

“We have made adjustments to give ourselves even higher confidence, even though we have intercepted three out of three times in that scenario,” Army Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly told a missile-defense conference at the Pentagon’s National Defense University.

O’Reilly, in response to a question, said U.S. ability to hit a specific spot on the target missile had improved “dramatically” during the tests. The last test simulating a North Korean attack took place December 5.

“So, do I think it is likely that you’re going to intercept if somebody launches out of there?” he said. “Yes, I do. And the basis is those three tests and what we know about that threat.”

Any decision to try to knock out a missile launched by Pyongyang would be made by U.S. national command authorities headed by President Barack Obama.

South Korean media have reported that Pyongyang may this month test a missile designed to fly as far as U.S. soil. Last week, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of short-range missiles and threatened to attack the South, raising tension to one of its highest levels since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North appears to be preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile with an estimated range of 2,500-4,000 miles from a west coast base, the daily JoongAng Ilbo has cited South Korean intelligence sources as saying.

Pressed to quantify the extent of his confidence in a successful shootdown using U.S. ground-based interceptor missiles, O’Reilly stopped short of saying this was “highly” likely.

“I’m not going to let you put words in my mouth,” he said. “Because I don’t know the definition between ‘highly’ and ‘likely.’ But, yes, I do believe it’s likely we’re going to have a successful intercept against that capability based on the data I’ve seen.”

The sole U.S. bulwark against long-range ballistic missiles is a network of interceptors based in underground silos since 2004 in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Boeing Co. is the prime contractor of the system, known as the ground-based midcourse defense. Top subcontractors include Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Co. and Orbital Sciences Corp.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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