updated 6/16/2009 5:45:53 PM ET 2009-06-16T21:45:53

North Korea's missiles could hit the United States in as few as three years if the reclusive rogue nation continues to ramp up its weapons system, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

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At a Tuesday morning Senate hearing on missile defense, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn pointed to Pyongyang's recent steps to accelerate its long-range weapons program and agreed with Sen. John McCain, a Republican that the U.S. should be prepared for a "worst-case scenario" with North Korea.

"We think it ultimately could — if taken to its conclusion — it could present a threat to the homeland," Lynn told McCain during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Lynn did not immediately know how long it would take North Korea to build a powerful enough missile to hit Alaska or Hawaii. But Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would take at least three to five years for North Korea to pose a real threat to the West Coast of the United States.

"That's assuming a lot of luck on their part in moving forward," Cartwright said during questioning by Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat.

But Lynn and other Pentagon officials at the hearing said the U.S. currently has enough missile interceptors to protect the U.S. should North Korea launch an attack. Lynn said the Pentagon was building silos for as many as 30 interceptors stored at an Army base in the state of Alaska — including some that are obsolete and need to be upgraded to counter future threats.

But the Pentagon's spending plan halts a planned expansion of its missile defense system, shaving at least $500 million from key programs, said Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, director of the military's Missile Defense Agency.

In all, the missile defense budget is being cut by $1.2 billion, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican.

"This whole budget has taken quite a hit," Sessions said.

The Pentagon officials also acknowledged that North Korea is working with other nations, including Iran and potentially Syria, to develop ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon is reviewing its missile defense program, a study that should be completed by the end of the year.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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