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. US deploys destroyers off North Korea as part of missile defense system
WASHINGTON (AFP) Oct 01, 2004
US destroyers equipped with Aegis missile tracking systems have been deployed in the Sea of Japan near North Korea as part of a controversial new US missile defense system, the Navy's civilian chief said Friday.

"We do have our Aegis destroyers deployed and indeed they do have tracking capability as we committed to do before the end of the year," Navy Secretary Gordon England told reporters.

England confirmed reports that the destroyers were in the Sea of Japan near North Korea, whose long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs put it at the top of the US threat list.

But he would not say whether it meant the missile defense system that the United States is erecting at bases in Alaska and California is now operational.

Pentagon officials have said the United States is on track to declare the system's "initial defensive capability" this year, providing a limited defense against long range missile attack by a "rogue" state.

Critics of the system, however, say there is little confidence the system will work because it has not been sufficiently tested.

The Aegis destroyers' powerful radars would be used to track long-range missiles after they have been detected by early warning radars.

Data from the radars flow to command centers where they are integrated with other targeting data to launch interceptor missiles into the path of the incoming missile.

So far, the Pentagon has deployed five interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska. One more is to be added at Fort Greely in mid-October and two others at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California before the end of the year.

Early warning radars and Aegis radars on navy destroyers have been upgraded for the missile defense system. The command and control system linking the radars to the interceptor missile also have now been installed, said Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.

He said the US Northern Command, Strategic Command and the Pacific Command will conduct a series of warfighting exercises before a decision is made to declare the system to be operatinal.

The system will be tested electronically to ensure its components are performing correctly, but there will be no actual test launch of an interceptor missile from Fort Greely at a target missile before it is declared to have an "initial defensive capability," he said.

The last time the system was flight tested was in December 2002. However, a surrogate booster and radar were used in those and earlier tests. Thomas Christie, the Pentagon's chief of operational testing and evaluation of weapon systems, has warned they system may be only 20 percent effective.

Retired general Eugene Habiger, former head of the US Strategic Command, recently decried the rush to field a system, saying it "does not have any credible capability."

"I cannot recall any military system being deployed in such a manner," he said. "In my entire military experience, I have never seen a weapons system deployed with something as squishy, if you will, as an "initial defensive capability."

Habiger also suggested the North Korean threat has been exagerated, saying it has not flight tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and must first overcome the formidable challenge of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead.

"The defense is going to be a system that has never been flight-tested, against a threat that has never been flight-tested," he said.

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