By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
October 11, 2006
North Korea's test of a suspected nuclear device is certain to provide an enormous boost for the often-maligned, enormously complex system the United States is developing to protect its territory from enemy missiles.
That's the conclusion of proponents of the program, who say that no better example exists of why such a system is needed than North Korea's detonation of what is believed to have been a small, possible precursor to a bomb.
Even if the detonation was a dud, it still served to illustrate the pressing need to erect a missile-defense system against a threat that is at least looming on the horizon, they said.
"Our world has significantly changed from this reality," said Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, an Alexandria, Va., group that believes the United States should arm itself with the defensive system posthaste. "The United States must engage and deploy its current missile-defense assets and those in other theaters against North Korea."
No definitive U.S. assessment of what it was that the cloistered country set off has yet been publicly released.
North Korea's reputed test comes about a month after another significant event in the long, often-troubled history of efforts to design and build a workable way to protect the United States from long-range ballistic missiles.
On Sept. 1, for the first time since a skeleton system was deployed four years ago, a test interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was able to smack a mock warhead fired from Kodiak, Alaska, out of the sky.
This was considered a "very realistic test" of defending against a ballistic-missile attack by North Korea, which would likely follow the track over Alaska that the test warhead took, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who heads the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency, told reporters last month.
"This is about as close as we can come to an end-to-end test of our long-range missile-defense system," Obering said.
That success came after years of disappointments from the ground-based anti-missile program, which racked up a series of misses since 2002.
Some criticism has come from experts such as Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation, who argues that reliance on a ground system is insufficient. Space-based protections - along with others based on ships - are what is necessary.
"We're better off under an umbrella of positive security," Spring said.
Other critics are Democrats in Congress, who, along with some Republicans, have regularly targeted the program's stratospheric price tag - $9 billion for this year alone - as being far out of proportion to its demonstrated ability or anticipated utility.
Leonor Tomero, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, does not view North Korea's Monday move as a justification for the missile-defense system favored by the Bush administration.
In fact, she said, "I think it underscores even more that missile defense is irrelevant."
For now, the risk is far greater for North Korea to sell bomb-grade material to terrorists or rogue countries hostile to the United States than it is to loft a nuclear warhead at American soil, she said.
A better strategy than cobbling together a cash-guzzling, technologically problematic defense system would be to, for instance, buy the nuclear material from North Korea and otherwise engage it diplomatically to disarm.
"This test ratchets up the need for a successful diplomatic strategy, which must include carrots as well as sticks, to put an end to North Korea's nuclear-weapon program," Tomero said.
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