WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Friday that it would strengthen the country’s defenses against a possible attack by nuclear-equipped North Korea, fielding additional missile systems to protect the West Coast at a time of growing concern about the Stalinist regime.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would add 14 missile interceptors in Alaska, a roughly 50 percent increase over the current number there and in California. The estimated $1 billion expansion represents a policy shift for the Obama administration, which had shelved earlier plans to expand the mainland defense system.
The Pentagon cast the expansion as a response to rising threats from Iran and North Korea, but the volatility and increasing hostility of the North Korean regime was clearly the main driver.
“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.
The Obama administration has said North Korea is still years away from having the capacity to launch a nuclear-armed missile strike against the continental United States. But Pyongyang has made faster-than-expected improvements in its long-range missile technology and successfully put a satellite into space recently. The satellite launch uses the same technology required to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea also conducted a third underground nuclear test this year.
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 U.S. 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 young leader, Kim Jong Un, has proved even more bellicose than his father, North Korea’s longtime ruler, disappointing U.S. officials who had hoped for a fresh start with the regime.
Deployment of the new interceptors will begin shortly and be completed by the end of 2017. The administration will begin looking for a potential third site for ground-based interceptors.
A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal planning, said the expansion had been in the works for about six months.
Hagel said the United States will also deploy an additional early-warning radar system in Japan. It is intended to protect Asian allies and the United States, but China considers it a provocation.
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. Some money will be diverted from the SM-3 program to fund the additional ground-based interceptors and some to 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, primarily for protection against a potential threat from Iran. That program has been a long-standing irritant in U.S. relations with Russia.
The U.S. ground-based missile interceptors have a checkered record. Technical difficulties slowed their installation at Fort Greely and Vandenberg, and flight testing was suspended for two years after a failed intercept 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.”
It is not clear what effect the order for additional interceptors and the radar will have on jobs or the defense budget. The interceptor missiles are made by Orbital Sciences, although Boeing is the overall contractor for the program and several other defense firms have pieces of it. The early-warning radar is made by Raytheon.
Undersecretary of Defense James Miller presaged the decision to expand the U.S. missile defense system in a speech Tuesday. He said the United States has the ability to quickly deploy up to 14 additional missile interceptors “if needed.”
“Our policy is to stay ahead of the threat — and to continue to ensure that we are ahead of any potential future Iranian or North Korean ICBM capability,” he said.