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US Can Block North Korean Missiles -- For Now, Leaders Say

Even as North Korea continues to exceed U.S. intelligence expectations with its fast-paced missile testing, America has never been more prepared for the country's threats, top officials said Wednesday.

But leaders are keeping a watchful eye on what kind of advanced missiles North Korea could fire off next.

"I will tell you we have the strongest defense possible as far as the North Korean threat, right now, today," Rear Adm. Jon Hill, deputy director for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said during the Defense News Conference outside Washington, D.C.

He spoke alongside Brig. Gen. Mark Baird, director of space programs for the Air Force's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition; Thomas Karako, senior fellow at the International Security Program, Missile Defense Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Brig. Gen. Tim Lawson, deputy commanding general for operations, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command; and Tim Cahill, vice president for Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Systems.  

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"What we're really concerned about is downstream as the threat becomes more complex, and complexity comes to you in a lot of different ways," Hill said, referring to the aerodynamic challenges the missile defense agency is tracking.

"If you look at the basic physics of how a ballistic missile flies, there are lots of things that make it tough on our sensors," he said. "And so we do a little testing. We make sure that our tests are operationally significant, that we've got warfighters on the console[s], that we are using those threat vehicles … that they have those sort of countermeasures and other things that make protection and killing very difficult."

In August, Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, head of the Pentagon's missile defense agency, said recent missile intercept tests give him confidence the U.S. can protect itself from wide variety of threats.

"These tests are not staged, they're not crafted for success. They stress the systems; we learn from every single test, and bottom line ... the nation should be very confident that we have demonstrated the ability to defend against the range of threats that we are seeing today all the way from the short-range ballistic missiles ... medium-range ... to the ICBM," Greaves said during the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sunday, reportedly the most powerful of its recent high-yielding exercises.

The test, which Pyongyang said was a hydrogen bomb, follows a string of testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and other missiles meant to reach American territories such as Guam and even the continental U.S.

While the U.S. has led the effort in missile interception innovation, Karako quoted Vice Adm. James D. Syring, the previous MDA director, who said, "Note the threat is outpacing us."

"Yes, we are defended today because we have that advanced lead time but, as of right now in relative terms, they seem to be moving faster than we are and so we're going to lose that lead … and so I think that means [we need] a greater pace, a greater degree of effort relative to [threats]," Karako said.

It will take more examples from allies or from those who support moving against North Korea's hostile intents, he said.  

Karako noted that China too is invested in curbing North Korea's recent activities with its own cruise missile efforts.

"Yesterday, China put out a press release saying they intercepted some cruise missiles, some targets, off the coast of Korea to signal to us, 'Hey we're thinking about this and what we want to do,' " he said.

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