According to our senior commanders in the Pacific, the U.S. military is prepared to shoot down North Korea's Tapeodong-2 missile when it is launched next month.
If it is called upon.
That's an important caveat, because there is no indication (yet) that President Obama has given that order. At this point, we're roughly two weeks away from the DPRK's planned launch window, and comments from Admiral Timothy Keating, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) suggest the shoot down directive has not been issued.
More from the AP via Breitbart:
Admiral Keating told senators at a hearing that there was a "high probability" that the United States could knock down a North Korean missile. Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. commander in South Korea, said the threat "is real."
Keating said the United States is getting "reasonable intelligence" reports that give a close look at North Korea's activities.
"We'll be prepared to respond," he said, adding that "the United States has the capability" to shoot down any missile.
In terms of "reasonable intelligence," Admiral Keating means the U.S. has some idea of Pyongyang's plans, in terms of an actual satellite launch, or a long-range missile test masquerading as a satellite shot. We may not have conclusive data, but through the use of advanced imagery techniques and MASINT (Measures and Signatures Intelligence) sensors, the intel community has probably made a preliminary call, favoring one scenario over the other.
Put another way, the Obama Administration (at this point) should have enough information to make a call, and issue a warning to the DPRK. Prior to the last TD-2 test in 2006, the U.S. put land and sea-based missile defenses on higher alert, and publicly promised to shoot down the missile, if it threatened our interests, including American allies in the region. The intercept became unnecessary when the long-range missile fell apart, roughly 100 seconds into its flight.
So far, Mr. Obama has refrained from making a similar vow, creating some confusion among military leaders and our Asian partners. Keating made similar remarks a couple of weeks ago, earning a verbal rebuke from White House aides, who claimed that the admiral's comments were unhelpful and could upset diplomatic overtures to North Korea.
As we noted previously, the logic of this approach is apparently lost on Japan as well. Tokyo has threatened to intercept the TD-2 if it threatens Japanese territory--a virtual certainty--using its Kongo-class destroyers, equipped with the same Aegis radar system and SM-3 interceptor missiles found on U.S. naval vessels.
Without better coordination, we could well witness a Japanese combatant knock down the North Korean missile while we stand by and watch. While the Japanese have the inherent right of self-defense, the ramifications of that intercept would be felt throughout Northeast Asia and beyond. Even South Korea, the most likely target for any North Korean military action, would be uneasy over Japanese forces taking defensive action against the DPRK.
Reading between the lines of Admiral Keating's testimony, he appears to be prodding Washington for some kind of guidance on the pending TD-2 launch. His assets include several ballistic missile defense ships assigned to the 7th Fleet (home ported in Japan), as well as land-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and tracking radars across the region, all designed to deal with this type of threat.
These resources can be rapidly deployed, placed on heightened alert and respond to the North Korean test. All that's required is an executive decision. Based on his testimony before Congress, it sounds like Admiral Keating is still awaiting orders, even at this (relatively) late hour.