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Would the so-called ‘Star Wars’ really work?

If North Korea launched an ICBM toward the U.S., could we really shoot it out of the sky? NBC's George Lewis reports.

An ominous satellite photograph shows a North Korean missile on the launch pad, almost ready to go. Pentagon officials tell NBC News it could be launched as early as Sunday, Korea time.

Over the past five years, the Bush administration has spent almost $43 billion on missile defense, but in testing, the system has failed half the time.

"We can't depend on our missile defense system in a situation like we have with North Korea, because we don't know what the capabilities will be under realistic operational conditions," says Philip Coyle with the Center for Defense Information.

But the Pentagon's head of missile defense said Friday that in the event of a North Korean attack, he's confident the U.S. could shoot down any of their missiles.

The challenge for the Pentagon is to make the system fully capable. To do that, the Defense Department is asking for $10.4 billion in next year's budget.

If North Korea launched an ICBM toward the U.S., here's what's supposed to happen:

  • An infrared sensing satellite detects the heat from the launch and relays that information to U.S. ships equipped with sophisticated Aegis radar tracking systems.
  • Ground station radars in Alaska begin to pick up the track of the missile.
  • A U.S. interceptor missile or missiles are launched from Alaska, possibly joined by others from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The plan: At least one of the interceptors will get close enough to the incoming missile to blow it out of the sky.

"Missile defense is a vaccine against a country getting a missile and a nuclear weapon and thinking they're king of the hill," says James Carafano with the Heritage Foundation.

But in March, the Government Accountability Office said the missiles at Vandenberg and in Alaska were so plagued with defects that officials were actually considering removing them from their silos to be re-manufactured.

Thursday, during a test, a U.S. Navy ship successfully shot down an intermediate-range missile, but this technology won't work against longer-range missiles like the one sitting on that North Korean launch pad.