U.S. Readies System For Missile Detection

By Thomas E. Ricks and Joohee Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The U.S. military yesterday moved ships into position off the coast of North Korea to detect the launch of any long-range ballistic missiles and prepared its new, unproven missile-interception system to attempt a response if necessary.

It was apparently the first time that the U.S. government has readied its rudimentary missile-defense system other than to test it. But officials played down the possibility that the interceptors might be used against a North Korean missile, and the South Korean government expressed doubt that Pyongyang is even preparing a test launch of its first intercontinental missile. It suggested that the government of Kim Jong Il might only be preparing to send a satellite into space.

Han Song Ryol, North Korea's deputy chief of mission at the United Nations, said that Pyongyang has a right to develop and test missiles, but that it would like to ease tensions over the situation through talks, the Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying. "We know that the U.S. is concerned about our missile test launch," the news services quoted Han as having said in a telephone conversation with Yonhap. "Our position is to solve this situation through discussions."

Two U.S. Navy ships with sensors that could swiftly detect and track a missile's flight were operating off the North Korean coast yesterday, a Pentagon official said. They are the USS Curtis Wilbur and the USS Fitzgerald, both Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers based at Yokosuka, Japan.

Also, as part of a long-planned exercise, the Navy has three carrier battle groups operating near Guam in the western Pacific for the first time since the Vietnam War, along with dozens of aircraft, including several heavy bombers.

Pentagon officials said that steps had been taken to ready the U.S. interceptors in much the same way that they would proceed for a test of the system -- which is still being built -- because of recent satellite imagery indicating that North Korea might be preparing a test launch.

But they declined to confirm a Washington Times story yesterday that said the system had recently been activated, and that the Bush administration is considering shooting down the North Korean missile.

"The United States has a limited missile-defense system, but I'm not going to discuss status or capabilities," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

There are nine interceptor missiles based in Alaska and two in California. They are at the core of a complex system that connects launch data from satellites and radars on land and aboard ships, and transmits the data to command-and-control facilities, where senior commanders make decisions about whether to launch interceptors. The system has not successfully intercepted a missile in its current configuration.

U.S. government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, played down the likelihood of the new anti-missile system being used in this situation because, they said, it is not yet clear whether North Korea will send a missile aloft -- or if it does, whether it would head anywhere near U.S. territory. Nor would the U.S. government want to risk an embarrassing failure of its system, they said, and it is possible that the missile could carry a satellite into space, rather than arc back to earth.

In Seoul, a South Korean official said his government is skeptical of U.S. intelligence indicating that North Korea is preparing to launch a new, larger version of the Taepodong-2 missile capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States. He said his government is not particularly alarmed by the situation and "doesn't understand why there is such fuss in other countries on this."

He also said it is too early to tell if the North Koreans are trying to launch a satellite or test a missile.

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