Some scientists say U.S. may not be able to shoot down North Kor - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Some scientists say U.S. may not be able to shoot down North Korean missiles

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By: KEN DILANIAN

(NBC) - Top generals have been insisting for years that if North Korea launched a missile at the United States, the U.S military would be able to shoot it down.

But that is a highly questionable assertion, according to independent scientists and government investigators.

In making it, the generals fail to acknowledge huge questions about the effectiveness of the $40 billion missile defense system they rely on to stop a potential nuclear-armed ballistic missile fired by North Korea or Iran, according to a series of outside reviews.

"They are leading political leaders to believe that they have a military capability that they don't, in fact, have," says physicist David Wright, who has studied the program for years as co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Chris Johnson, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, said the Pentagon "is confident in our ability to defend the homeland against ballistic missile threats." While the program had reliability challenges early in its development, "we have made significant improvements over the last several years to ensure the system is able to operate as designed," he added.

The missile defense system relies on 60-foot-tall, three-stage rockets of its own to knock the enemy projectiles out of space, a task that has been compared to shooting a bullet with a bullet. The system is known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD.

There are 36 interceptors in operation, according to the Missile Defense Agency — four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and 32 at Ft. Greely, Alaska. Eight more are due online by year's end. In contrast to the Iron Dome system in Israel, which is designed to counter shorter range missiles and artillery, the GMD is made to hit missiles above the earth's atmosphere — a more difficult proposition. It is among the heirs to the Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called Star Wars program launched under Ronald Reagan.

The missiles are based in Alaska and California because the West Coast is the best place from which to intercept missiles that would travel the shortest routes from both Iran and North Korea. Congress has pushed for a third site on the East Coast.

Read the full story on NBCNews.com.

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