In the wake of North Korean missile and nuclear tests and what seems like increasingly belligerent pronouncements from Pyongyang, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday that the US is beefing up its missile defense system.
That system, 30 anti-missile missiles based in Alaska (26) and California (4), is to be increased to 44 defense missiles in the coming years.
“We will strengthen homeland missile defense by deploying 14 additional ground-based interceptors, GBIs, at Fort Greely, Alaska,” Secretary Hagel said. “These additional GBIs will provide a nearly 50 percent increase in our missile defense capability.”
In addition to the US-based defense missiles, the US Navy has ballistic missile defense ships cruising off the Korean Peninsula. The US has Patriot missile defense batteries in South Korea, and Japan is developing missile defense systems as well.
How likely is it that North Korean missiles could reach US targets?
“We are confident we could defeat a threat from North Korea today,” Air Force General Robert Kehler, chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. But, he added, “Their activities have our attention, and it has our concern.”
Or as President Obama told ABC News the other day, "They probably can't [hit the United States], but we don't like the margin of error.”
Other US officials have spoken recently of the threat posed by a country whose leader Kim Jong-un is young and newly-installed, and where there is stiff resistance to United Nations sanctions against its recently tested nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
In a letter to the UN Security Council released Friday, North Korea called the most recent sanctions “a crime” and “clear proof” that the 15-nation UN body “was abused into implementing the hostile policy of the United States.” The letter promised “stronger countermeasures” against the sanctions, and said that should the United States opt for war it is ready to “fight it out and win a final victory.”
In a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, a foreign ministry spokesman said North Korea would “be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest.”
Just how serious the threat is hard to pinpoint given North Korea’s history of hostile rhetoric and provocative acts – including its third nuclear test last month, which resulted in the increased UN sanctions.
“We do not know Pyongyang's nuclear doctrine or employment concepts," the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. "Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against US forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North's perspective, crossing that threshold."
For this reason, officials are emphasizing that there should be no doubt about US resolve in facing any such threat.
“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 respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea,” National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told the Asia Society in New York this week.
The additional ground-based anti-missile defense announced this week will take about four years to be fully deployed.