A North Korean missile test last August came as a nasty surprise to U.S. security experts. One of the world's rogue nations had unexpectedly launched a three-stage rocket with a range the CIA estimated at 4,000 miles.
That three-stage configuration could deliver small payloads to the United States, which, despite spending billions to prevent such an attack, would be relatively defenseless to stop it.
|CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer Reports.|
Congress has been pouring billions of tax dollars into a missile defense system, but there's little to show for it, CBS News Correspondent David Martin reports.
Even before the North Korean test, the Pentagon was spending $3.5 billion a year on developing a defense against missiles. Now, says Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, "I think it brings much more focus and urgency to this."
And it's not just North Korea that could threaten the U.S. Iran recently rolled out a missile capable of hitting U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Yet the Pentagon's attempt to develop a defense that can shoot down incoming missiles has been lurching from failure to failure.
"We haven't had any success in the intercept tests," Hamre says. "That's a disappointment."
One missile is now 0 for 5 in tests. Another missile, a souped-up version of the Patriot missile used in the Gulf War, has yet to be tested. But already that missile is projected to cost twice as much as it was supposed to.
One senior military officer told CBS News it is "insane to be spending so much money and have so little to show for it." Yet Republicans in Congress have demanded this technology be fielded as soon as possible.
"There is a big threat out there, and it's not one that can be solved by a national missile defense," says a physicist who was assigned to look into the nation's missile defense.
The CIA's Robert Walpole agrees and adds that there are ways to deliver weapons of mass destruction that make missile defense irrelevant.
"An aircraft, a truck, some package left somewhere in a subway; those types of scenarios," he says. "Some of the countries have the capability of doing those kinds of things with a chemical or a biological weapon."
The United States survived the Cold War without a missile defense because the Soviet Union could be counted on not to commit national suicide by starting a nuclear war. But what about North Korea?
"What happens if the government decides to launch as sort of a last act of survival. You know, that the government is collapsing?" asks Hamre.
No one knows what would happen, and no on knows if a missile defense will work. But the U.S. has spent $50 billion over the last 15 years trying to make it work, and it is not about to give up now.