NK missile range progress 2009
The Obama administration this week again questioned the workability of America’s still-developing defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Only days earlier, though, the  U.S. commander in the Pacific said that if North Korea tests a long-range missile, the military not only would track it but could well blow the missile out of the sky.  President Barack Obama only had to give the order.

“And [if] we hit what we’re aiming at, that should be a source of great confidence and reassurance to our allies and partners,” Adm. Timothy Keating, who heads Hawaii-based Pacific Command, told ABC News.

Not to mention reassurance for  ordinary Americans. After all, if North Korea, Iran or a terrorist group someday were to fire a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile at the United States, it could reach and obliterate a targeted city in 33 minutes or less.

That’s no more time than it takes for those ordinary Americans to get a pizza delivered, notes Kim Holmes, Heritage’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies.

“In less time, if [the missile] detonated high above the homeland, its electromagnetic pulse would incapacitate everything from ATMs and hospital equipment to traffic lights and computers for thousands of miles,” Holmes writes in NRO. “Life would never be the same.”

North Korea claims  it’s merely preparing to send a satellite into space. But U.S. and South Korea officials, an Agence France-Presse dispatch underscores, contend the “real purpose is to test a missile which could theoretically reach the state of Alaska.”

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs didn’t radiate Adm. Keating’s confidence.  President Obama, Gibbs said, is going to weigh various factors in deciding whether to keep developing a missile-defense system, “including whether or not the system worked.”

In fact, Heritage missile-defense expert Baker Spring says, the Missile Defense Agency’s field tests put the success rate for “hit-to-kill” technology at roughly 80 percent. MDA interceptors shot down target missiles in 38 of 47 attempts since 2001.

In the latest exercise, Dec. 5, a “kill vehicle” hurtled over the Pacific Ocean to  blow up a target missile 1,800 miles into its flight from Alaska to California.

The White House’s more discouraging word  followed news reports that Obama delivered a secret letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev three weeks ago. One suggestion in that missive: America would have no reason to build the European portion of our missile-defense system if Russia — which vehemently opposes such a missile shield — were to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

In separate trips abroad before disclosure of the Obama letter, Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed candidate Obama’s contention that missile defenses are unproven or unworkable or too expensive.

Yet Adm. Keating, for one, appears encouraged as he prepares for a North Korean missile launch. The head of Pacific Command said U.S. ships carrying interceptors are ready “on a moment’s notice,” ABC reported Feb. 26.

“We will be fully prepared to respond as the president directs,” Keating said.

Heritage recently premiered “33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age,” a plain-talking, nonpartisan documentary film on the need to counter the growing threat of missile attack. As Holmes says, many Americans don’t realize what technology exists — or that large sections of the country, as well as our allies, remain unprotected.

The range of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is at least five times farther than in 1990. The Taepodong-2, if successfully developed, could strike Alaska, Hawaii and “parts of the continental United States,” intelligence officials say. By perfecting a three-stage rocket, the North Koreans could reach anywhere in North America with a nuclear warhead.

As former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner, now  Heritage’s expert on Korea, writes: “A successful launch of a missile theoretically capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead would reverse perceptions of a diminishing North Korean military threat.”

America, however, has more at stake than Pyongyang does.

“The surest way for the administration to set itself up for a colossal crisis is to abandon missile defense,” Heritage national security expert James Jay Carafano warns. “To do so in the face of provocative actions by tinhorn tyrants in Iran and North Korea — or in response to mere complaints from Russia — is to look weak and inept. And that would invite disaster.”