WASHINGTON (CNN) - There is little doubt that a planned North Korean rocket launch next month is designed to bolster that country's military capability, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.
He also indicated that the U.S. military could be prepared to shoot down a North Korean missile if the rogue regime develops the capability to reach Hawaii or the western continental United States in a future launch.
The North Korean government says it will launch a commercial satellite atop a rocket sometime between April 4 and April 8.
"I don't know anyone at a senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile," Gates said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."
Gates noted that while the United States believes it is North Korea's "long-term intent" to add a nuclear warhead to any such missile, he "personally would be skeptical that they have the ability right now to do that."
Japan recently mobilized its missile defense system - an unprecedented step - in response to the planned North Korean launch, Japanese officials said.
The move, noteworthy for a country with a pacifist constitution, is aimed
at shooting down any debris from the launch that might fall into Japanese territory.
In a concurrent response, U.S. Navy ships capable of shooting down ballistic missiles are being moved to the Sea of Japan, a Navy spokesman said Thursday.
Gates said that the U.S. military could shoot down "an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii ... or something like that, we might consider it, but I don't think we have any plans to (do) anything like that at this point."
He does not believe North Korea currently has the technology to reach Alaska or Pacific coast.
Gates said that impending missile launch is a clear demonstration of the failure of the recent six-party talks to disarm the North Korean regime.
"It's very troubling. The reality is that the six-party talks really have not made any headway any time recently," he said.
"If (the missile launch) is Kim Jong-Il's welcoming present to a new president ... it says a lot about the imperviousness of this regime in North Korea to any kind of diplomatic overtures."
Gates said that he believes economic sanctions are the best tool to getting countries like North Korea and Iran to the negotiating table. Both countries are believed by the United States and other Western nations to be trying to acquire nuclear capability.