North Korean threat could require new missile defenses for western US

Wednesday , February 14, 2018 - 1:30 PM

Missy Ryan

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear capability may require new U.S. investments in missile defense for the western-most United States, the top U.S. military official for the Pacific said Wednesday.

Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told lawmakers that the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had made “rapid and comprehensive improvement” in its missile and nuclear programs over the last year, posing an unprecedented threat to the United States and its allies.

“While some in the U.S. might dispute both the reliability and quantity of the North’s strategic weapons, it is indisputable that Kim is rapidly closing the gap between rhetoric and capability,” Harris told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Harris’ testimony comes as the Trump administration seeks to intensify global pressure on North Korea to set aside its nuclear ambitions.

Already, North Korea has demonstrated its growing military might with the launch of two different intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and a sixth nuclear test conducted in September 2017.

Kim’s reclusive government has repeatedly threatened the United States, and North Korean offiicals have boasted that they have the ability to deliver a missile strike on the U.S. territory of Guam.

U.S. officials have said that if its program goes unchecked, North Korea may be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States in a matter of months.

Harris, who has been noinated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Australia, said South Korea and Japan had been “living under the shadow” of North Korea’s threats for years. “Now the shadow looms over the American homeland,” he said.

Scrambling to counter a growing North Korean threat, the Trump administration is seeking additional resources for missile defense programs, including new ground-based interceptors as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) and investments in regional defense systems including Aegis, Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

Briefing lawmakers on U.S. military efforts under his command, Harris suggested that existing missile defense systems may need to be augmented in Hawaii, whose position in the Pacific make it particularly exposed to North Korean threats.

The United States now has land-based interceptors in Alaska and California. While Hawaii is nominally under those interceptors’ shield, the mixed track record of existing defense systems could mean that additional measures are required for some areas, said Laura Grego, a missile defense expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“I believe it’s adequate for the threat that we face today, but I think that much more needs to be done for the threat the we’ll face in two to three years,” Harris said, asked about the adequacy of defenses for Hawaii and Guam. He said the notion of ground-based systems in Hawaii should be studied.

Hawaiians’ desire for enhanced missile defense may be heightened following an errant incoming missile alert last month that terrified thousands of residents.

The Pentagon is expected to provide additional details of its plans for safeguarding against attacks from North Korea or other adversaries in a missile defense review that is expected to be issued in coming weeks.

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