WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's missile defense chief predicted on Friday that interceptor rockets would hit and destroy a North Korean missile in flight if President Bush gave the order to attack it on a path to U.S. territory.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told reporters he has little doubt that the interceptor system would work, even though it has never been used in a real emergency and even though the U.S. government knows relatively little about how the North Korean missile would perform.
Obering refused to say whether the U.S. missile defense system is ready now for a possible intercept mission, but noted that it has been designed specifically to defend U.S. territory against known missile threats from North Korea.
From "what I have seen and what I know about the system and its capabilities, I am very confident," he said when asked at a news conference about the likelihood that one of the 11 missile interceptors based in Alaska and California would succeed against North Korea's long-range Taepodong 2 missile.
Obering refused to discuss more specifically the level of his confidence.
He also would not say whether the missile defense system, which includes missile-tracking radars and a communications system linked to the interceptors in underground silos, is currently in an "operational" status.
He said it is shifted from a test mode to an operational mode frequently. "We do it all the time," he said.
The system is not ready at all times for actual use in an emergency because it is often preparing for or conducting tests.
Noting that North Korea has not conducted a test flight of a ballistic missile since 1998, Obering said that means the Pentagon has a limited amount of information about how a long-range Korean missile would function.
"It's very, very difficult to understand what they may have, how it may perform," he said, adding that any long-range ballistic missile would have to follow known trajectories in order to reach U.S. territory.
The Taepodong 2 missile is a newer version that has never been flight tested.
U.S. officials and private experts say they are uncertain of North Koreans' motives for apparently preparing to launch a Taepodong 2, which U.S. officials believe has a range of between 5,000 miles and 7,500 miles. They may be planning a test flight of the missile to verify its design and gain other technical data for further improvements to the system, or they may use the missile to try to thrust a satellite into orbit.
There is no expectation that the missile would be launched as a deliberate attack on the United States, but without knowing for sure in advance the Pentagon has been considering the circumstances under which it would try a mid-flight intercept, on Bush's order.
The North Korean missile program is especially troubling to the United States, Japan and other countries potentially within missile range because of North Korea's declared -- but unproven -- possession of nuclear weapons.
Alan Romberg, an Asia policy expert and former State Department official, said in an interview Friday that he believes it is likely that North Korea has managed to fashion a number of weapons from its nuclear materials, but he finds it questionable to conclude that they have one that could be carried atop a long-range missile.