Since intelligence analysts detected North Korea's preparations for the latest test of its Tapeodong-2 long range missile, there has been much speculation about how the U.S. will respond.
Before the last launch in 2006, the Bush Administration put land and sea-based missile defenses on alert, and announced plans to shoot down the TD-2--if it threatened American territory, or our allies in the region. But the planned intercept proved unnecessary after the North Korean missile broke apart, only 100 seconds into its flight.
This time around, President Obama hasn't revealed how our military forces might react. Earlier this week, we suggested that (perhaps) the new commander-in-chief didn't want to tip his hand. Alternately, there's the possibility that Mr. Obama and his advisers are still formulating response options.
If the president has decided on a course of action, he hasn't shared it with the Commander of U.S. Forces in Pacific--the man who deals with the North Korean threat on a daily basis. In an interview with ABC News, Admiral Timothy Keating said military forces are prepared to shoot down the TD-2--if President Obama gives the order:
"If a missile leaves the launch pad we'll be prepared to respond upon direction of the president," Keating told ABC News. "I'm not a betting man but I'd go like 60/40, 70/30 that it will, they will attempt to launch a satellite. There's equipment moving up there that would indicate the preliminary stages of preparation for a launch. So I'd say it's more than less likely."
"Should it look like it's not a satellite launch -- that it's something other than a satellite launch -- we'll be ready to respond."
North Korea says the rocket being prepared for launch is a booster, designed to lift a satellite into orbit. But there are ample reasons to reject that claim. Space tracking assets never detected a satellite after a similar test in 1998 and the most recent launch (in 2006) was clearly a missile test. But Pyongyang is sticking by its story, realizing that the U.S. would be face severe criticism for interrupting a satellite deployment.
Admiral Keating did not say whether ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California have been placed on alert. The same assets were on alert for 40 days before the 2006 test.
The U.S. can also dispatch Aegis cruisers and destroyers with the SM-3 missile to intercept the TD-2 from positions in the Sea of Japan. While hose assets are not yet on station, Keating told ABC they could be deployed "in a moment's notice."
The U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, includes at least five BMD-capable vessels, led the Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh. Additionally, 15 destroyers in the Arleigh Burke class will have the same capability by the end of this year. Japan's Kongo-class destroyers can also utilize the SM-3 for missile defense. However, the TD-2 intercept mission would almost certainly be assigned to an American naval vessel.
That's assuming that Mr. Obama okays the deployment, and grants permission to engage. Admiral Keating's carefully worded comments suggest that he's still waiting for guidance.