North Korea claims it has built a “smaller and light” bomb. If that’s true, Pyongyang is one step closer to developing an atomic warhead small enough to fit atop one of its long-range missiles.
North Korea’s latest nuclear test, coupled with its successful long-range rocket launch in December, is prompting renewed attention to the state of U.S. missile defenses. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called North Korea’s nuclear test a “provocation” and said the United States is strengthening its missile defense system.
The United States has been working for years to make sure that it will be able to intercept such a missile if one is ever fired at its territory. Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta referred to about 30 ground-based missile interceptors, almost all of which are deployed in Alaska.
Two Washington-based analysts told VOA they are not sure how effective the interceptors will be. “These interceptors in Alaska and California are believed to have some capability against a rudimentary intercontinental ballistic missile warhead of the kind that you would expect North Korea to have initially,” said Steven Pifer, head of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Pifer said plans are underway to build more missile silos in Alaska. Also, the U.S. Navy has a missile called the SM3 that can intercept short- to medium-range ballistic missiles.
According to James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Obama administration has been focusing on stationing interceptors in northeast Asia to defend against North Korean missiles and conventional shorter-range Chinese missiles. He said the administration also has been working on a defense system in Europe to defend allies, and in the longer run the continental U.S., from Iranian missiles.
Most analysts believe North Korea is several years away from developing a missile that can hit the United States, but that improvements in the missile defense program will remain a top U.S. priority.