Pentagon to Add Missile Interceptors to Deter North Korea

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the U.S. will add 14 interceptors to the 30 in its missile defense system by fiscal 2017, sending a signal to North Korea after the totalitarian regime threatened nuclear strikes.

The U.S. is taking several steps to bolster missile defenses and “stay ahead of the threat” posed by Iran and North Korea, Hagel told reporters yesterday at the Pentagon. The announcement came as Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was preparing to travel to Asia this weekend, with stops including South Korea.

The ground-based system has interceptors built by Orbital Sciences Corp. topped by hit-to-kill warheads from Raytheon Co. Boeing Co. manages the $34 billion system that now has 26 interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The system hasn’t successfully intercepted a test target since December 2008.

The 14 added interceptors will be located in Alaska and will cost $1 billion, which the Pentagon will request in its fiscal 2014 budget, according to James Miller, under secretary of defense for policy.

He said the interceptors won’t be deployed until the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency shows that a flawed warhead has been fixed.

There’s no evidence yet that North Korea has nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to target the U.S. or South Korea. There’s also no public information on whether North Korea has been able to covertly advance beyond testing to weaponizing a nuclear device.

‘Hyperbolic’ Claims

“North Korea’s claims may be hyperbolic -- but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt: We will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea,” U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said in a March 11 speech to the Asia Society in New York.

The intelligence community’s annual global threat assessment, presented to Congress this week by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, cited “North Korea’s commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat to the United States.”

Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that adding interceptors will provide “a much-needed measure of protection” against North Korea.

‘Right Direction’

Hagel’s announcement “is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough to address the threat from Iran which, according to the Department of Defense, could test an intercontinental ballistic missile as early as 2015,” Inhofe of Oklahoma said.

In addition to deploying the 14 additional interceptors, Hagel reaffirmed the U.S. pledge to deploy in Japan a second TPY-2 missile defense radar made by Raytheon, based in Waltham, Massachusetts. He said the administration also will prepare an environmental impact statement that would be needed to build a third missile defense site on the East Coast of the U.S. Lawmakers have called for an East Coast site.

The U.S. is shifting money away from a European-based missile interceptor whose development is still lagging to pay for the additional U.S. based interceptors as well as to develop an advanced warhead, Hagel said.

Together the measures will improve the performance of the U.S.-based missile defense system and “we will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner while also providing additional protection against the North Korean threat,” Hagel said.

System Testing

Since the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency began testing the U.S.-based anti-missile system in 1999, the interceptors have hit dummy targets in eight of 16 tests.

The last successful hit against a target was in December 2008. In 2010 the system failed to hit a target in two tests using a new, more-sophisticated warhead, one in January and the other in December. After those failures, the agency discovered a flaw in the guidance system of the newest Raytheon-made warhead.

A test to intercept a target is scheduled for later this year to confirm that the guidance flaw has been remedied.

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