Washington: The Obama administration will add 14 interceptors to a West Coast-based missile defence system, reflecting concern about North Korea`s focus on developing nuclear weapons and its advances in long-range missile technology, US officials said on Saturday.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel planned to announce the decision later today. It was first reported by a news channel.
In advance of Hagel`s announcement, defence officials confirmed the decision on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss it publicly.
The Pentagon intends to add the 14 interceptors to 30 already in place in California and Alaska. That will expand the system`s ability to shoot down long-range missiles in flight before they could reach US territory.
James Miller, defence undersecretary for policy, said in a speech Tuesday that the Pentagon has the ability to deploy up to 14 additional missile interceptors, "if needed." He did not say in the speech that a decision had been made to do so.
"As we think about our homeland missile-defence posture, we do not have a `just-in-time` policy," Miller said. "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 (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability."
Miller noted that last December, North Korea launched a satellite into space, demonstrating its mastery of some of the same technologies required for development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
"Our concern about Pyongyang`s potential ICBM capability is compounded by the regime`s focus on developing nuclear weapons. North Korea`s third nuclear test last month is obviously a serious concern for all nations," he said.
North Korea recently threatened to reduce Seoul to a "sea of fire" and stage pre-emptive nuclear attacks on Washington. "North Korea`s shrill public pronouncements underscore the need for the US to continue to take prudent steps to defeat any future North Korean ICBM," Miller said in his speech on Tuesday.
Hagel also announced the restructuring of the SM-3 IIB program.
"We had planned to deploy the SM IIB as part of the European phased adaptive approach. The purpose was to add to the protection of the US homeland already provided by our current GBIs against missile threats from the Middle East," he said.
"The timeline for deploying this program had been delayed to at least 2022 due to cuts in congressional funding.
Meanwhile, the threat matured. By shifting resources from this lagging program to fund the additional GBIs as well as advanced kill vehicle technology that will improve the performance of the GBI and other versions of the SM-3 interceptor, we will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner while also providing additional protection against the North Korean threat," he added.
Hagel said the missile deployments the US is making in phases 1 through 3 of the European phased adaptive approach, including sites in Poland and Romania, will still be able to provide coverage of all European NATO territory, as planned, by 2018.
The collective result of all these decisions will be to further improve the US ability to counter future missile threats from Iran and North Korea, while maximizing increasing scarce taxpayer resources, he added.