WASHINGTON - A new anti-missile system ordered for Hawaiiis partly a strategy to deter North Korea from test-firing along-range missile across the Pacific and partly a precautionagainst the unpredictable regime, military officials said Friday.
The United States has no indication that North Korean missiletechnology has improved markedly since past failed launches, andmilitary and other assessments suggest the communist nationprobably could not hit the westernmost U.S. state if it tried,officials said.
The North's Taepodong-2 could travel that far in theory, if itworks as designed. But three test launches have either failed or donot demonstrate anything close to that range.
Nonetheless, past failure should not be considered a predictor,one military official said, and the seaborne radar and land-basedinterceptors were added this week as a prudent backstop.
Military and other U.S. officials spoke on condition ofanonymity to discuss the U.S. response a day after DefenseSecretary Robert Gates said he is concerned about the potential fora North Korean missile launch toward Hawaii.
A senior defense official would not discuss details of rangeestimates for North Koreans missiles, but said the same principleof caution for Hawaii would apply if the North appeared to threatenU.S. territories in the Pacific.
Japanese media have reported the North Koreans appear to bepreparing for a long-range test near July 4. The Daily Yomiurireported that Japan's Defense Ministry believes a long-rangemissile was delivered to the new Dongchang-ni launch site on NorthKorea's west coast on May 30.
U.S. analysts say that after the last test fizzled, the Northwants to prove its missile capability both as proof of militarystrength and as a sales tool for its lucrative overseas weaponsdeals.
A U.S. counterproliferation official said the U.S. government isnot currently seeing preparations for launch of a long-rangeTaepodong-2 missile, sometimes short-handed as a TD-2. The officialsaid a launch sometime in the future could not be ruled out but itis too soon to be seeing ground preparations for a launch aroundJuly 4.
"I don't see any evidence that Hawaii is in more danger nowthan before the last TD-2 launch," said Jeffrey Lewis, director ofthe Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the NewAmerica Foundation.
It took North Korea about 12 days to complete groundpreparations before the April launch of a Taepodong-2, roughlyequivalent to a U.S. Titan missile.
If North Korea does launch a long-range missile from its newDongchang-ni site on the west coast, it could be placed on asoutheast trajectory toward Hawaii.
However, the only three long-range missiles fired by North Koreaso far have fallen well short of the 4,500 miles required to reachthe chain of American islands.
The North Korea missile launched in April traveled just under2,000 miles before falling into the Pacific. That was about doublethe distance traveled by a similar missile launched in 1998. NorthKorea also launched a missile in 2006 but it fizzled shortly aftertake off.