WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that he would strengthen U.S. defenses against a possible attack by nuclear-equipped North Korea, fielding additional missile systems to protect the West Coast.
Hagel said he would add 14 missile interceptors in Alaska. The estimated $1 billion expansion represents a policy shift for the Obama administration, which had shelved plans to expand the mainland defense system.
Pentagon officials cast the expansion as a response to rising threats from Iran and North Korea, but the volatility and increasing hostility of the North Korean government were clearly the main drivers.
“North Korea, in particular, has recently made advances in its capabilities and has engaged in a series of irresponsible and reckless provocations,” Hagel said at a news conference.
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The Obama administration has said North Korea is years away from having the capacity to launch a nuclear-armed missile strike against the continental United States. But the North Korean government has made faster-than-expected improvements in its long-range missile technology and successfully put a satellite into space recently. A satellite launch uses the same technology required to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea also conducted a third underground nuclear test this year.
North Korea recently has taken a more aggressive tone toward South Korea, nullifying its 1953 truce with the South, and threatened a pre-emptive strike against the United States.
The United States has little insight into the North Korean leadership’s decision-making and even less diplomatic leverage. The chief U.S. deterrent is its overwhelming military advantage, one that also obligates the United States to defend close Asian allies South Korea and Japan from a North Korean assault.
The ground-based missile interceptors are designed to blow up incoming warheads in flight. The system, in place since 2004, has 26 interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Plans for the 14 additional interceptors were revived as North Korea’s rhetoric appeared more dangerous, Pentagon officials said. A year into his tenure, the country’s 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, has proved even more bellicose than his father, North Korea’s longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, disappointing U.S. officials who had hoped for a fresh start with the new government.
Deployment of the new interceptors will begin shortly and be completed by the end of 2017, Hagel said. The U.S. also will begin looking for a potential third site for ground-based interceptors.
It is not clear what effect the order for additional interceptors will have on jobs or the defense budget. The missiles are made by Orbital Sciences, although Boeing is the overall contractor for the program and other defense firms have pieces of it.
The Navy also recently bolstered its deployment of ballistic-missile-defense warships in waters off the Korean Peninsula, although the vessels were sent as part of an exercise before the increase in caustic language from the North. As part of the Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea, the Navy has four Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers in the region. Additionally, the U.S. deploys Patriot Advanced Capability batteries in South Korea for defense of targets there.
Japan is developing its own missile-defense system, which includes Aegis warships and Patriot systems.
The U.S. has advanced TPY-2 missile-defense tracking radar in Japan to enhance early warning across the region and toward the West Coast.
The Pentagon will pay for part of the expansion by revamping its Aegis missile program, which would be used to provide mobile, ship-based missile defense in Europe and as added protection in the United States.
Congressional cuts to the SM-3 Aegis missile program had pushed deployment of the U.S. component back to at least 2022, Hagel said Friday. Money will be diverted from the SM-3 program to fund the additional ground-based interceptors and improve the performance of both types of missiles.
“We will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner while also providing additional protection against the North Korean threat,” Hagel said.
Hagel said the United States will not alter plans to deploy the system in Europe, a long-standing irritant in U.S. relations with Russia.
The missile interceptors have a checkered record. Technical difficulties slowed their installation, and flight testing was suspended for two years after a failure in December 2010. The Pentagon conducted a successful flight test in January.
“We have confidence in our system,” Hagel said. “And we certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need.”
Material from McClatchy Newspapers and The Associated Press is included in this report.