U.S. to expand missile shield in Alaska to protect against North Korea nuclear threat
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced on Friday it will spend $1 billion to add 14 interceptors to an Alaska-based missile defense system, responding to what it called faster-than-anticipated North Korean progress on nuclear weapons and missiles.
In announcing the decision, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is determined to protect the homeland and stay ahead of a worrisome North Korean missile threat. He acknowledged that the interceptors in place to defend against potential North Korean missile strikes have had poor test performances.
“We will strengthen our homeland defense, maintain our commitments to our allies and partners and make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression,” Hagel said.
He said 14 interceptors will be installed at Fort Greely, where 26 stand in underground silos, connected to communications systems and operated by soldiers at Greely and at Colorado Springs, Colo. The interceptors are designed to lift out of their silos, soar beyond the atmosphere and deploy a “kill vehicle” that can lock onto a targeted warhead and, by ramming into it at high speed, obliterate it.
Hagel cited a previously announced Pentagon plan to place another radar in Japan to provide early warning of a North Korean missile launch and to assist in tracking its flight path.
A portion of the $1 billion cost of the expanded system at Fort Greely will come from scrapping the final phase of a missile defense system being built in Europe, Hagel said. The system in Europe is aimed mainly at defending against a missile threat from Iran; key elements of that system are in place.
Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, applauded the decision to scrap the final phase of the European system, calling it an addition that “may not work against a threat that does not yet exist.”
Anticipating possible European unease, Hagel said America's commitment to defending Europe “remains ironclad.”
The decision to drop the planned expansion in Europe happens to coincide with President Obama's announced intention to engage Russia in talks about further reducing each country's nuclear weapons arsenal. The Russians have balked at that, saying Washington must first address their objections to missile defenses in Europe, which the Russians see as undermining the deterrent value of their nuclear arms.
Collina said the Russians may be more willing to talk about nuclear arms reductions now that the Obama administration had decided not to go forward with the final phase of its European missile defense system.
Hagel cited three recent developments in North Korea that prompted the Obama administration to act, including a nuclear test in February deemed reckless by Washington and condemned by the U.N. security council.
Hagel cited Pyongyang's launch in December of a rocket that put a satellite into space and demonstrated mastery of some of the technologies needed to produce a long-range nuclear missile. And he noted that last April the North Koreans put on public display a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08. Navy Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that missile is believed to be capable of reaching U.S. territory.
Although not mentioned by Hagel, North Korea raised tensions further by recently threatening to pre-emptively attack America. Among its declarations, North Korea has said it will no longer recognize the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, although it has made such remarks before.
Republicans in Congress have criticized the administration for deciding several years ago that the North Korean missile threat did not justify expanding the interceptor fleet at Greely. Rep. Howard “Buck' McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said on Friday the administration is guilty of “looking at threats through politically tinted glasses. Now that the administration has decided to see clearly, America can get back on the right course.”
Winnefeld said the administration is seeking to make clear to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, grandson of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, that he would lose catastrophically by attacking America or U.S. allies.
“And we believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that. And if he's not, we'll be ready,” Winnefeld said.