(CNSNews.com) - All 50 American states are now protected against a limited ballistic missile attack involving one or two missiles launched out of North Korea, according to the Defense Department.
The Defense Department reached that conclusion after conducting tests based on a North Korean missile-launch scenario.
Missile attacks from other locations -- such as China, Russia, and Iran -- cannot necessarily be stopped, yet.
"There is no such thing as a perfect defense," Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency, explained in an interview. "But for the first time in our history we've been able to defend against a ballistic missile attack."
The missile defense system has been in place since 2004 and now offers protection to all 50 states against a limited attack originating in North Korea, he said.
"We can defend all 50 states," said Lehner. "If it's against North Korea, with the trajectory it would follow, the interceptors in Alaska and California would shoot them down and obviously protect all 50 states because it would intercept very far off from North America."
Test results for the existing missile defense equipment and technology show they have been effective over 80 percent of the time since 2002, according to Defense Department data.
The Aegis sea-based system has successfully intercepted 11 out of 13 missiles in the 12 tests that have been conducted thus far, while ground-based interceptors have been successful in five out of six tests, government records show.
Although the current defenses are configured with North Korea in mind, Lehner anticipates that the U.S. will be strongly positioned to defend against a missile attack from Iran once early warning radar systems are up and running in the United Kingdom and in Greenland. The U.K. radar is a year away from being operational.
"Given where Alaska sits globally, the trajectory an Iranian missile would take toward any part of the U.S. involves geometries that are very favorable to defense," said Lehner. Moreover, the missile defense system planned for Poland will add another layer of defense for the U.S., he said, even though it is primarily crafted for Europe's defense.
With an eye toward rogue states like North Korea and eventually Iran, 24 Ground Based Interceptors (GBI's) have been installed in silos in Alaska and California. These are backed up by U.S. Navy Aegis cruisers and destroyers that carry missile defense systems at sea.
A GBI is made of three rocket boosters and an "exo-atmospheric kill vehicle" (EKV) that operates with sensors and ground-based technology to zero-in on a targeted missile. The 152 pound EKV's, which look like fat rockets, are designed to collide with incoming ballistic missiles in outer space.
In Greek mythology, Zeus used a shield called the Aegis. Today, the word is synonymous with the U.S. Navy's most advanced combat weapon system, an integrated radar-and-missile system deployed on cruisers and destroyers.
Together with the Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California, these sea-based platforms give the United States a multi-layered ballistic missile defense system whose capabilities will grow as time goes on, Defense Department officials say.
"There is a viable missile defense out there now that is continuing to grow and evolve," Chris Taylor, deputy director of public affairs for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), a division of the Defense Department, told Cybercast News Service in an interview.
The existing system provides Americans in all 50 states with ground- and sea-based layers of defense against missiles.
It is not perfect, but the system is working at a greater level of efficiency that was not available prior to 2004, said Taylor. He added that, over time, additional ground- and sea-based components are expected to be deployed in different parts of the world in cooperation with allied nations.
While most of the missile defense assets protecting the American homeland have been deployed on the West Coast, Taylor expects to see additional ground-based and sea-based systems deployed in a variety of geographic locations. He points out, for instance, that the USS Ramage, an Aegis-equipped vessel operating on the East Coast, now has missile defense capabilities.
When President Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which had restricted U.S. development of an anti-missile defense shield, the U.S. military began exploiting technology that was not fielded during the Cold War, MDA officials say.
"Under the ABM treaty we could not have a national missile defense," Lehner, the MDA spokesman in Washington, D.C., said. "We could not deploy a system capable of defending against a missile attack on all 50 states. We could not deploy the mobile radars we now have with Aegis cruisers and destroyers."
Ultimately, the goal is to have 40 interceptor missiles in Alaska, four in California, and 10 in Europe between the Czech Republic and Poland, Lehner said. The radar systems in Europe, with those in Greenland and Britain, will benefit U.S. defenses as early warning devices.
He added that once the early warning radar systems in Great Britain and Greenland are upgraded, America will be in a position to defend against a potential missile attack from Iran. For instance, a missile fired from Iran could be tracked by radars in Britain and Greenland and then shot down by a ground-based interceptor in Alaska.
Further, there are layers of defense involved because Aegis sea-based missiles could back up the ground-based interceptors in Alaska to protect the United States.
In response to a directive President Bush issued in December 2002 to protect against near-term ballistic missile threats to the American homeland, the Defense Department structured its program in the framework of two-year "blocks."
The existing missile defense infrastructure will serve as the foundation for additional sensors, interceptors, and improved command-and-control capabilities devoted to protecting U.S. territory. Ground-based assets now coming online include early warning radars in California, Britain and Alaska.
At present, there are also three Navy Aegis cruisers and seven destroyers armed with missiles capable of engaging and destroying short- and intermediate-range missiles. At present, the USS Ramage is reportedly deployed off the East Coast of the U.S., and the other ships are off the West Coast, near Hawaii and Japan.
Current plans call for a total of 18 Aegis ships, including three cruisers and 15 destroyers, to be incorporated into the ballistic missile defense plan in 2009, the MDA reports. According to Lehner, those ships "will be deployed wherever they are needed."
Looking to 2009-2010, the U.S. Army will be able to field a new mobile, ground-based anti-missile system to defend against attacks at longer ranges and higher altitudes than existing technology, the MDA reports.
The Terminal High-Altitude-Area Defense (THAAD) system will serve as a complement to the Patriot Advanced Capability 3, which is now operating in the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"This multi-layered defense is much like the defense of a football team," Taylor explained. "The Aegis and ground-based systems are the linebackers," he said, "while the THAAD and Patriot defenses operate much in the same way as cornerbacks and safeties adding additional protective layers."
This analogy is not lost on Riki Ellison, a former National Football League (NFL) player turned missile-defense advocate. He founded the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) shortly after 9/11. Ellison supports a multi-layered approach to missile-protection that includes components operating on land, sea, and air and eventually outer space.
The multi-layered approach the U.S. has adopted toward missile defense enhances the nation's ability to ward off potential attacks, said Ellison. The idea is to target all three phases of a missile's flight, he explained. There is the boost phase, mid-course phase and terminal phase.
"Our country now has capabilities in the terminal phase and in the mid-course phase as deployed today," said Ellison. "The more layers you have, the more effective your system is going to be and the harder it is for an opponent to get through and the more redundant it becomes. So you want to add not just numbers but different types of systems."
Since withdrawing from the ABM, the Bush administration has pressed key initiatives that have gone a long way toward closing off points of vulnerability, said Ellison.
"And missile defense puts the United States in a position of international leadership," he said. "This is not a divisive action, it's a collective action. Other nations understand the threat."
The most recent tests involving ground- and sea-based missile defense technology are operating at a heightened level of precision and accuracy, MDA data show. The defense systems are knocking missiles out of the sky.
"I believe we have a ballistic missile defense system that is at least 90 percent effective against limited attack," Ellison said. "When we are talking about a single attack from a single missile we are probably higher than 95 percent because we can do multiple shots and we have increased our efficiencies and capabilities."
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