Could the U.S. stop a North Korea missile?

Washington, D.C. (CNN) – According to a memo from the Pentagon, the U.S. has the ability to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the homeland.

That signals an upgrade to our defense systems. But some experts caution that the missile defense system is still not fully developed.

Less than twenty minutes. If North Korea develops intercontinental ballistic missiles with enough range, that’s how long it could take one to reach the west coast of the United States.

And this is what the U.S. military hopes will stop it: The multi-billion dollar Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD., declared operational and in steady development more than a dozen years.

Other systems might try to hit a missile at launch or just before impact, but this is the only one the U.S. has for stopping an ICBM mid-flight.

Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said, “It is incumbent on U.S. to assume that North Korea today can range the United States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead.”

How would the GMD work?

A missile is launched from North Korea. American satellites, sea-based, and ground based sensors begin tracking it, calculating where it will be every moment of its journey.

That information about this incoming missile is fed to launch facilities at two Air Force bases in Alaska and in California.

And in all likelihood, several counter-missiles would likely be launched, converging on the target. and they are close enough, each one releases a “kill vehicle”– about five foot long, 120 to 150 pounds.

This is a space craft designed to steer itself toward the attacking missile and hit it at over fifteen-thousand miles an hour.

The results were shown in a successful test this past May.

The kill vehicle and incoming missile were obliterated.

So what could go wrong? Plenty, according to Philip Coyle, a former assistant Secretary of Defense. “Before that it had missed three of its previous four targets, it had failed the previous four times. So with the latest success, it’s batting about 40% and when you and I were in school, 40% was not a passing grade.”

And the GMD is still small – a U.S. defense official familiar with the program says it “was designed to defend against a rogue missile, not a full scale attack.”

By the end of this year the GMD will still have less than fifty defensive missiles in place.

That means even if they all worked perfectly, a barrage of intercontinental ballistic missiles could simply overwhelm the system.

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