WASHINGTON - The Pentagon announced Friday that 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 U.S. homeland and stay ahead of a worrisome North Korean missile threat. He acknowledged that the interceptors already 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 told a Pentagon news conference.
He said the 14 additional interceptors will be installed at Fort Greely, Alaska, where 26 already 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 obliterate it by ramming it at high speed.
Hagel also cited a previously announced Pentagon plan to place an additional 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 the U.S. is building 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 already 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 U.S. commitment to defending Europe "remains ironclad."
The decision to drop the planned expansion in Europe coincides 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 U.S. 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 system.
Hagel cited three recent developments in North Korea that prompted the administration to act, including a nuclear test in February deemed reckless by Washington and condemned by the United National Security Council.
Hagel also 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 capable of reaching U.S. territory. Winnefeld appeared with Hagel at Friday's news conference.
Although not mentioned by Hagel, the North Koreas raised tensions further by threatening last Thursday to pre-emptively attack the U.S. Among its recent declarations, North Korea has said it will no longer recognize the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, though 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 Friday the administration was 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."
Expansion of the nation's ground-based missile defense system could benefit Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems and other defense contractors.
Raytheon's Tucson unit provides the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) to Boeing Co., the prime contractor for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. Other Raytheon divisions make advanced radars for the missile shield.
The nonexplosive EKV is designed to guide itself to its target and destroy it by sheer impact.
In its most recent test in January, Raytheon's EKV performed successfully in a non-intercept flight test.
Deliveries of the latest version of the EKV were suspended after a December 2010 failure during an intercept flight test. The Missile Defense Agency plans further flight testing later this year before deploying new EKVs.
"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."
U.S. defense secretary