Missile Defense "Operational"?

Reuters reports the following:

The United States has moved its ground-based interceptor missile defense system from test mode to operational amid concerns over an expected North Korean missile launch, a U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed a Washington Times report that the Pentagon has activated the system, which has been in the developmental stage for years.

"It's good to be ready," the official said. . . .

While military officials . . . note the United States has a limited missile defense system, they have so far declined to comment on any details about the capabilities or potential use of the system to intercept a North Korean missile.

This is not an issue I have followed much, but given the little I had read in recent years, this story comes as a surprise. Are there readers who can shed light on whether this means missile defense is a reality? And, if so, what does this mean for U.S. security? Or is this just much ado about nothing?

Preempting the Korean Missile:

From an article in today's Washington Post by former Clinton Defense honchos Aston Carter and William Perry:

Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of "preemption," which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses. (The actual threat from Saddam Hussein was, we now know, even smaller than believed at the time of the invasion.) But intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.

Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. The multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive -- the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea's nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.

The U.S. military has announced that it has placed some of the new missile defense interceptors deployed in Alaska and California on alert. In theory, the antiballistic missile system might succeed in smashing into the Taepodong payload as it hurtled through space after the missile booster burned out. But waiting until North Korea's ICBM is launched to interdict it is risky. First, by the time the payload was intercepted, North Korean engineers would already have obtained much of the precious flight test data they are seeking, which they could use to make a whole arsenal of missiles, hiding and protecting them from more U.S. strikes in the maze of tunnels they have dug throughout their mountainous country. Second, the U.S. defensive interceptor could reach the target only if it was flying on a test trajectory that took it into the range of the U.S. defense. Third, the U.S. system is unproven against North Korean missiles and has had an uneven record in its flight tests. A failed attempt at interception could undermine whatever deterrent value our missile defense may have.

Against Preempting The Korean Missile:

In today's Washington Post, Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, former special U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea, strongly disagrees with the suggestion by William Perry and Ashton Carter that the U.S. should consider preempting North Korea's missile test.

For 1,971 days the Bush administration ignored North Korea's missile program as unimportant and unthreatening to the security of the United States. Then it woke up. Unfortunately, the alarm clock was North Korea's preparation to test a long-range missile. By simply putting a Taepodong ICBM on the launch pad, North Korea has managed to turn truly smart people into foolish ones. . . .

So what do we do now? Attack North Korea and cross our fingers in the hope it doesn't annihilate Seoul or pass weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda? Refuse to talk to the North Koreans? Take them to the U.N. Security Council and slap their wrists?

Make no mistake: A missile test is a step in the wrong direction, and the appropriate first response would be for the United States to reimpose the specific sanctions that were lifted in 2000 as a direct result of the missile moratorium.

But the missile test is not a violation of anything more than our pride, ripping a gaping hole in the false logic that talking with the North Koreans somehow rewards and empowers them. To the contrary, we should be opening avenues of dialogue with Pyongyang. . . .

By not talking with North Korea we are failing to address missiles, human rights, illegal activities, conventional forces, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and anything else that matters to the American people. Isn't it about time we actually tried to solve the problem rather than let it fester until we blow it up?

Red Rockets Glare:

North Korea conducted several missile tests on July 4th. I wasn't able to comment at the time, but Daniel Drezner rounded up the various reactions here.

"A Reasonable Chance of Shooting It Down":

At a press conference earlier today, President Bush was asked several questions about the North Korean missile tests. Among his responses were the following comments about the United States' anti-ballistic missile capabilities:

Our missile systems are modest, our anti-ballistic missile systems are modest. They're new. It's new research. We've gotten -- testing them. And so I can't -- it's hard for me to give you a probability of success. But, nevertheless, the fact that a nontransparent society would be willing to tee up a rocket and fire it without identifying where it's going or what was on it means we need a ballistic missile system.

While existing systems may be "modest," the President further indicated that the military could well have intercepted a missile aimed toward North America. Specifically, Bush said "I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that's what the military commanders told me."

The official press conference transcript is here.

Missile Test "Success":

The military is touting the latest Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile test as "phenomenal" and claims a THAAD system could be ready for emergency deployment within a year. According to this report, "military officials said the test went better than they could have hoped." [Yet in the next paragraph, the story quotes an official saying "It performed as expected." Does this mean that when it comes to missile tests performing "as expected" is "better than they could have hoped" for? Never mind.]

Since I've learned so much about defensive missile capabilities from in prior comment threads, I am once again interested in what the VC readership has to say about this latest test, whether the THAAD system is worth the $4 billion invested in it, and what this development means for our defensive capabilities.