Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger and Martin Fackler / The New York Times – 2013-03-27 00:45:35
WASHINGTON& SEOUL (March 15, 2013) — The Pentagon will spend $1 billion to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast to counter the growing reach of North Korea’s weapons, a decision accelerated by Pyongyang’s recent belligerence and indications that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is resisting China’s efforts to restrain him.
The new deployments, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday, will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska to 44 from 30 by 2017.
The missiles have a mixed record in testing, hitting dummy targets just 50 percent of the time, but officials said Friday’s announcement was intended not merely to present a credible deterrence to the North’s limited intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal. They said it is also meant to show South Korea and Japan that the United States is willing to commit resources to deterring the North and, at the same time, warn Beijing that it must restrain its ally or face an expanding American military focus on Asia.
“There’s been a quickening pace of provocations,” said one senior administration official, describing actions and words from North Korea and its new leader, Mr. Kim. “But the real accelerant was the fact that the North Koreans seemed more unmoored from their Chinese handlers than even we had feared.”
Although American and South Korean intelligence officials doubt the North is close to being able to follow through on a nuclear strike, or that it would even try, given its almost certain destruction, analysts say the country’s aggressive behavior is an important and worrying sign of changing calculations in the North.
In interviews over recent days, Obama administration officials described internal debates at the White House and the Pentagon about how strongly to react to the recent provocations. It is a delicate balance, they said, of defending against real potential threats while avoiding giving the North Koreans what one official called “the satisfaction of seeming to make the rest of the world jumpy.”
In announcing the deployments at a Pentagon news conference, Mr. Hagel cited North Korea’s third test of nuclear weapons technology last month, the successful test of a long-range missile that sent a satellite into space, and the discovery that a new generation of mobile missiles appeared closer to development.
“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,” Mr. Hagel said.
All 14 of the new interceptors will be placed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, where 26 interceptors are already deployed. Four others are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
North Korea has always been an unpredictable, provocative dictatorship. But even by its own standards, the isolated Communist regime’s recent decision to nullify a wartime cease-fire and weeks of increasingly hyperbolic warnings, including of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, appear to have crossed new and dangerous lines.
Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke at the Pentagon on Friday and described how the United States was deliberately building a two-tiered system of deterrence against North Korea.
The United States will “put the mechanics in place to deny any potential North Korean objectives to launch a missile to the United States, but also to impose costs upon them if they do,” Admiral Winnefeld said.
In an unusually pointed warning to the new North Korean leader, Admiral Winnefeld added, “We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that — and if he’s not, we’ll be ready.”
The arguments for bolstering the limited missile defense were symbolic of the larger problem.
The antimissile systems are considered less than reliable, and some administration officials were reluctant to pour additional resources into deploying more of the existing technology.
But in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander of the United States Strategic Command, made clear they serve a larger purpose. “Deterring North Korea from acting irrationally is our No. 1 priority,” he said. He acknowledged that there were doubts that the 30 existing antimissile systems would be sufficient, and added that an additional site in the United States, on the East Coast, may be needed to deter Iran.
But the new deployment is also intended to send a signal to China, which tried but failed to block the more recent nuclear test, to rein in the North. “We want to make it clear that there’s a price to be paid for letting the North Koreans stay on the current path,” a senior official said Friday.
The North’s new leader, some analysts say, is intensifying the threats because he has failed to get the Obama administration and its South Korean allies to return to an established pattern in which the North provoked and the allies followed with much-needed economic aid in return for Pyongyang’s promises to finally halt its nuclear weapons program.
But a growing number of experts believe North Korea also views its recent advances in missile and nuclear technology as game changers that will allow it to build the nuclear arsenal it desperately wants, both as a deterrent against better-armed enemies and a cudgel to extract more concessions and possibly even international recognition.
“Developing nuclear weapons gives North Korea a chance to turn the tables in one stroke,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute. “They can get around the weakness of their economy and their outdated conventional weapons.”
The short-term risk, analysts say, is that the North’s chest-thumping will lead to another round of limited conventional military skirmishes with the South that could get out of control and, in the worst case, draw in the United States. With a new leader in South Korea under political pressure to stand up to her country’s longtime enemy, the risks are especially high.
The main newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, Rodong Sinmun, recently gave the North’s own explanation for its actions. “Let the American imperialists and their followers know!” the paper said. “We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya.”
Some missile-defense experts express deep skepticism about the capability of the ground-based interceptors deployed in California and Alaska.
“It remains unclear whether these ground-based interceptors can work effectively, and they should be subjected to much more rigorous field testing before taxpayer resources are spent on a system that is ineffective,” said Tom Z. Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group here.
James N. Miller, the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy, said the new missiles would have to show success before they would be deployed. “We will continue to stick with our â€˜fly before we buy’ approach,” Mr. Miller said, citing a successful test as recently as Jan. 26. George Lewis, an antimissile missile expert at Cornell University, said 15 flight tests of the defensive system have tried to hit targets, and only eight have succeeded.
The Defense Department’s interceptors in California and Alaska are to blunt a long-range missile threat from North Korea. The United States also deploys Patriot Advanced Capability batteries in South Korea for defense of targets there, and the South fields an older model of the Patriot.
Japan is developing its own layered missile-defense system, which includes Aegis warships and Patriot systems as well.
The United States deploys one advanced TPY-2 missile-defense tracking radar in Japan to enhance early warning across the region and toward the West Coast, and it has reached agreement to deploy a second.
And the Navy also recently bolstered its deployment of ballistic missile defense warships in waters off the Korean Peninsula, although the vessels were sent as part of an exercise even before the increase in caustic language from the North. As part of the Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea, the Navy has four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the region.
Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Martin Fackler from Seoul, South Korea. Choe Sang-hun contributed reporting from Seoul, and William J. Broad from New York.
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