North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program has developed faster than Washington anticipated. To make matters worse, Pyongyang has threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has labeled North Korea’s recent rhetoric as a real and clear danger to the U.S. and its Asia- Pacific allies, and has decided to restructure missile defense policy to protect the U.S. homeland from warheads that might be launched from North Korea and Iran.
On 15 March 2013, Secretary Hagel in effect canceled Phase Four of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The EPAA is the U.S. contribution to NATO missile defense and initially was created to protect Europe and the U.S. from the growing Iranian ballistic missile threat. The final stage of the EPAA would have provided protection from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched at the U.S. homeland from the Middle East with the use of SM-3 IIB interceptors based in Poland. Development and procurement of the SM-3 IIB experienced significant delays and now faces termination due partly to congressional underfunding.
In response to North Korea’s mounting threat, the U.S. will enhance its homeland defense by adding 14 ground based interceptors (GBIs) to the 26 that are already in place in Alaska and California by the end of 2017. After adding the four GBIs at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, this means the West Coast will have a total of 44 GBIs. GBIs provide protection against incoming missiles by lifting out of their silos, soaring beyond the atmosphere, deploying a “kill vehicle” that can lock onto a targeted warhead, and destroying the weapon by ramming into it at very high speed. Secretary Hagel claims the addition of 14 GBIs to the West Coast will provide about a 50 percent increase in the U.S.’ defense capability. With the support of the Japanese government, the U.S. will also deploy an additional AN/TPY-2 radar in Japan which will provide early warning and tracking of a missile launched from North Korea.
Some lawmakers have been pushing to add a U.S. East Coast site to further expand homeland missile defense against the Iranian threat — it is widely believed that Teheran’s nuclear program may one day have the ability to strike the U.S. as it expands the range of its ballistic missile technology. At this time, the Department of Defense is focusing on environmental studies to find the best possible location for an East Coast site — which will speed up the process of construction if and when that decision is made. Senator Susan Collins believes, “An East Coast missile defense site would provide the East Coast the same defensive coverage that the West Coast already enjoys.”
Adding 14 new GBIs is costly, totaling about $1 billion. Scrapping the final stage of the EPAA will free up some financial resources, but the Pentagon must also ask for more money in the fiscal year 2014 budget to fully support this new policy. Opponents, like Representative Mike Rogers, suggest that “President Obama’s reverse course decision will cost the American taxpayer more money and upset our allies.” Proponents, like Senator Jim Inhofe, believe the recent missile defense policy transformation is heading in the right direction, but is not “going far enough to address the threat from Iran.”
The U.S. is attempting to juggle growing future nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea at the same time. The decision to bulk up homeland missile defense by scrapping Phase Four of the EPAA, increasing the number of GBIs on the West Coast, adding an AN/TPY-2 radar in Japan, and possibly creating an East Coast site may provide further protection from incoming missiles, but the U.S. must not forget to continue improving its ability to stay ahead of and adapt to future nuclear threats. According to Representative Mike Turner, “Nations like North Korea and Iran are committed to building long-range ballistic missiles… No longer can this administration ignore these threats.”
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