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Outlining The U.S. Defenses Against A Missile Attack


North Korea test-fired a long-range missile last week that some experts said could potentially reach Alaska. This set off a round of concern about how close the regime could actually get to striking the United States. Could the U.S. defend itself against such an attack? Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, joins us now. Thanks for taking some time to talk to us.

KINGSTON REIF: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so I'm just going to ask straight out - could we stop a North Korean missile headed to the U.S.?

REIF: So the United States has spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars developing a ballistic missile defense system designed to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited ballistic missile attack from a country such as North Korea or Iran. The system that has been developed and designed to intercept such an attack, despite an investment of roughly $40 billion, has had a very troubled history. The overall test record for the system is 10 for 18. Not only is that test record just over 50 percent, but the tests have occurred in a very scripted and controlled environment. In addition, North Korea could develop decoys and countermeasures to aid its missiles in penetrating and evading U.S. missile defenses.

MARTÍNEZ: Kingston, what are those countermeasures?

REIF: So the countermeasures can be as simple as Mylar balloons, for example. And in the vacuum of outer space, these decoys and countermeasures as well as the actual warhead would be traveling at the same speed and would look, from the perspective of our sensors and radars, very similar to - if not identical to - the actual warhead.

MARTÍNEZ: So a simple balloon - wow.

REIF: A simple balloon, right. So it's an enormous challenge and a challenge that we have yet to solve.

MARTÍNEZ: Looking back, what has the goal of American missile defense been in the past?

REIF: So the goal of American missile defense has long been to defend the United States against a rogue state, such as North Korea or Iran. It has not been designed to defend against a much larger, formerly Soviet and now Russian ballistic missile attack - or even Chinese. The reason for that is the size and sophistication of, particularly the Russian, but also the Chinese ballistic missile arsenals. And finally, if we attempted to design such a system, it could potentially prompt Russia and China to take steps, such as increasing the size of their ballistic missile forces, to ensure that they can penetrate U.S. missile defenses.

MARTÍNEZ: So given what you've said so far, is this really something that we're trying to improve? Or is it just posturing?

REIF: So it is a system that we're trying to improve. But deploying more flawed, unreliable interceptors is not a winning strategy to stay ahead of the North Korean threat. And if the United States is going to invest scores of billions in missile defense, then it should have a system that works. And overall, I think while missile defense does have a role to play as part of a comprehensive approach to addressing the North Korean threat, it's neither as capable nor as significant as many seem to think it is. And the best way, ultimately, to address the North Korean threat is through a combination of deterrents, military preparedness, economic pressure but, crucially, a diplomatic strategy.

MARTÍNEZ: Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association - Kingston, thanks a lot.

REIF: Thanks so much for having me.