Lawmakers move to step up defenses against North Korea

Lawmakers move to step up defenses against North Korea

Congress is weighing options for bolstering U.S. defenses against North Korea, with new legislation arriving in the coming week that would increase the number of anti-missile systems on the West Coast.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) will unveil a bill that asks for 28 additional Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California, increasing by more than 30 percent the number of interceptors currently in the United States.

“If you want to protect the continental United States, Alaska is literally the front line and the best place and to do that from an attack from North Korea,” a Senate staff member familiar with the bill told The Hill.

“Sullivan is not doing this because it’s potentially good for Alaska, he’s doing this because [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un is continuing to test and advance his programs.”

North Korea does not yet have the technology to reach the West Coast with a missile, but Sullivan has spoken out against Pyongyang's efforts to develop a weapon, urging fellow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to prepare for a ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.

“That's going to happen,” the GOP senator said last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The bill comes as North Korea on Sunday fired a missile that landed in the Sea of Japan, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. Pacific Command detected and tracked the missile, the first such launch in two weeks, and flight data indicated that "the flight was not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile," the Pentagon statement reads. 

The interceptors are part of the U.S. government's Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, a network meant to protect the country against a limited nuclear attack.

The U.S. already has 30 interceptors, with four at Vandenberg Air Force Base along the California coast in Santa Barbara County and the rest at Alaska's Fort Greely. The Obama administration also signed off on plans to add 14 more to Alaska by the end of 2017.

Sullivan's bill does not state the cost of the 28 additional interceptors, but the senator is framing the increase as an insurance policy.

“I wouldn’t say they’re expensive and I wouldn’t say that they’re cheap,” the Senate staff member said. “I put it in the context of what is an American city worth?”

The bill would also ask the Missile Defense Agency to speed up the development of new missile interceptors by accelerating testing. In addition, it asks the agency to review the possibility of buying more of the current interceptors.
 
“It’s asking the Defense Department to figure out, up to a certain number, what the right amount of interceptors might be, what the cost might be and where they should be located to include Alaska,” the staff member said.

GMD, conceived under the Clinton administration and made operational by President George W. Bush, consists of interceptors housed in underground silos that would be deployed in response to an attack.

The system has drawn increased attention in recent months amid rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's missile tests, which have continued despite strong condemnation from the Trump administration and international community.

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and a flurry of missile tests over the last year, including a failed launch in April. The country may be preparing for its sixth nuclear test.

U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. John Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that North Korea is what he’s “concerned about most nights.”

President Trump warned in an interview with Reuters last month that "there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea" if a diplomatic solution doesn’t work.

The Pentagon ordered a naval strike group to near the Korean Peninsula last month, hoping to deter Pyongyang from conducting additional tests. It also deployed its THAAD missile defense system to a site in South Korea last month.

Meanwhile, the CIA on Wednesday announced the creation of a mission center designed to “purposefully integrate and direct CIA efforts against the serious threats to the United States and its allies emanating from North Korea," CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

Lawmakers in the House also last week tightened sanctions against North Korea that were aimed at deterring its weapons programs.

In a rare letter to Congress on Friday, North Korea warned U.S. lawmakers that tougher sanctions would only help speed up Pyongyang's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

“As the U.S. House of Representatives enacts more and more of these reckless hostile laws, the DPRK's efforts to strengthen nuclear deterrents will gather greater pace, beyond anyone's imagination,” the Foreign Affairs Committee of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly wrote in a letter published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The heightened tensions with North Korea come as the Pentagon undertakes its review of the United States' ballistic missile defense posture. The review, ordered by Trump in January and started in April, will examine threats from countries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. It will also guide modernization plans for the nuclear triad, a three-pronged nuclear defense arsenal, over the next decade. 

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has been critical of costly nuclear modernization efforts, said last month he hopes the review includes a “thorough assessment of policy options that would allow us to avoid a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race.”