How Does The US Military Intercept Enemy Missiles ?
The dictatorial, paranoid regime of North Korea is known for issuing bellicose threats that it will annihilate its enemies, but in the spring of 2013, those admonitions started to seem shriller than usual. North Korea's government-controlled news media announced that dictator Kim Jong Un had ordered his military to put its missiles on standby for a possible strike against U.S. military bases in South Korea, Hawaii and Guam, and even the U.S. mainland. One North Korean newspaper proclaimed that San Diego, Austin and Washington, D.C. were potential targets.
Even so, the Pentagon subsequently warned in a report to Congress, North Korea was on the way to eventually being able to build an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. And U.S. territory and bases in the Pacific—and its ally, South Korea — already were at risk.
But as the world watched anxiously, one important man was markedly calm. In testimony to the U.S. Senate, Adm. Sam Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that the U.S. was prepared to intercept North Korean missiles and prevent them from reaching their targets. "I believe we have a credible ability to defend the homeland, to defend Hawaii, defend Guam, to defend our forward-deployed forces and defend our allies," he said.
Locklear's seeming confidence was reassuring. Or was it? How exactly would the U.S. military intercept a nuclear missile aimed at Americans? And how dependable are the antimissile defenses, upon which the U.S. has spent $90 billion since 2002.
Antimissile defense actually is an idea that dates back to the Cold War. Even as the U.S. government adopted an official policy of massive retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, the Pentagon began trying to figure out how to stop enemy missiles before they could get to their targets. In 1962, the military began testing the Nike-Zeus anti-aircraft missile, which was designed to intercept an attacking ICBM in the upper atmosphere and blow it up with its own nuclear warhead, before it could reach a U.S. target. But the Nike-Zeus program eventually was abandoned, even though tests showed it was capable of knocking out an ICBM. Researchers realized that it would be easy for the Soviets to flood the skies with decoy missiles, as well as real ICBMs, and simply overwhelm defenses.