A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense element completed a successful intercept of a ballistic missile target at the Pacific Missile Range Facility off the island of Kauai in Hawaii, March 17, 2009.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense element completed a successful intercept of a ballistic missile target at the Pacific Missile Range Facility off the island of Kauai in Hawaii, March 17, 2009. (U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

WASHINGTON — The United States plans to increase its intercontinental ballistic missile defenses in the face of North Korea’s and Iran’s attempts to build long-range nuclear strike capabilities, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday at the Pentagon.

By late 2017, the U.S. will station at Fort Greely, Alaska, an additional 14 ground-based interceptor missiles — a nearly 50 percent increase over the 30 already in service there and in California, he said.

While the results of recent test of ground-based missile technology have been mixed, officials say the system is capable of protecting the entire United States. Hagel said the missiles would be fully tested before deployment.

The system will keep the United States “ahead of the threat,” particularly from North Korea, which Hagel said “has recently made advances in its capabilities and is engaged in a series of irresponsible and reckless provocations.”

In addition to the new interceptors, the United States will forge ahead with a previously announced plan to deploy an additional early warning missile defense radar in Japan. It will also test the feasibility of three potential new interceptor sites in the United States, two of them on the East Coast.

The United States still plans to deploy interceptors at sites in Poland and Romania in coming years, Hagel said.

“We’ll still be able to provide coverage of all European NATO territory as planned,” he said.

But development of a new Europe-based missile capable of providing missile defense for the continental United States as well — with plans to be operational by 2022 — is on hold, officials said. Instead, the new U.S. interceptor site featuring current-generation missiles will do that job several years earlier.

“This threat’s going a little faster,” Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon on Friday. “So by doing what we’re announcing today, we’re going to get better defense of the United States … and we’re going to get it a lot sooner.”

The secretive North Korean regime has plowed ahead with both testing and threats. In February, the country conducted an underground nuclear test that drew condemnations not only from the United States and its allies, but from North Korea’s traditional protector, China.

The test was followed by apocalyptic threats to create a “sea of fire” in Washington and elsewhere. In December, North Korea launched a satellite aboard a rocket that observers say could be a prototype of a weapon one day capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

“A space-launch vehicle incorporates many of the same technologies required for development of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James N. Miller said Tuesday in a speech at the Atlantic Counsel, a Washington think tank, that presaged Friday’s announcement.

North Korea is nowhere near having the capability to pose a credible nuclear threat to the continental United States, missile defense expert Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Stars and Stripes after the December rocket launch.

But the speed with which one test follows another is cause for concern, because it indicates a development program with greater capacity than previously thought, said Postol, an MIT professor of science, technology and national security.

Miller said Tuesday that although a true North Korean threat might still be in the future, the Obama administration won’t wait to protect the country.

“As we think about our homeland missile-defense 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.”

The Bush administration had planned a full complement of 44 interceptors stationed on the West Coast, but current administration had reduced the total to 30.

“While I am pleased that the Administration is taking this step, given the growth of the ICBM threat, I am disappointed that this is an announcement that has to be made at all,” Rep. Buck McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee said Friday. “The original decision to divest ourselves of these interceptors was a classic case of looking at threats through politically tinted glasses."

Speaking Friday at the Pentagon, Miller said the cost to deploy the 14 new interceptors at Fort Greely would be just under $1 billion. Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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