U.S. To Boost Missile Defense Amid Threats From North Korea

The Pentagon announced plans on Friday to beef up missile defense along the West Coast, in part to defend against the threat from North Korea. The Pentagon plans on adding 14 interceptor missiles to a base in Alaska, supplementing the 30 that are already there.

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The United States is taking the threat of a ballistic missile attack from North Korea very seriously. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced today that the U.S. is adding to its ability to defend against such a strike. He pointed to Pyongyang's aggressive rhetoric and recent tests of a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: North Korea in particular has recently made advances in its capabilities and has engaged in a series of irresponsible and reckless provocations.

BLOCK: That's Chuck Hagel speaking this afternoon at the Pentagon. NPR's Tom Bowman joins me with more details. And, Tom, what exactly is the Pentagon doing to beef up its missile defenses?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, first, they want to increase the number of interceptor missiles. Now, these are the ones that would actually hit an incoming enemy missile from, let's say, North Korea. Right now, there are about 30 of them, mostly at Fort Greely in Alaska and a small number at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Now the plan announced today would add an additional 14 missiles at Fort Greely at a cost of about $1 billion.

BLOCK: So more missiles going to Alaska. What's the track record? Do the systems work?

BOWMAN: Well, frankly, no one really knows for sure. The testing has been a bit spotty. The last successful intercept - now we're talking about a bullet hitting a bullet here - was way back in 2008. The most recent test they had in January - was in January, but that test wasn't designed to actually hit an incoming missile. It was just what they call the kill vehicle coming out of the missile.

BLOCK: We heard Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel refer to provocations from North Korea, and walk us through a bit more what he's talking about.

BOWMAN: Well, there are a number of things. First of all, North Korean officials said that they scrapped the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. They also - there was a recent nuclear test there, the country's third nuclear test.

And North Korea also has put a satellite in space, and a top official said earlier this week that a space launch rocket uses much of the same technology as a ballistic missile, and it could reach the United States. So there's a great deal of concern about what they've been doing with their technology.

BLOCK: And, Tom, how long will it take for this new missile defense system to be up and running?

BOWMAN: Well, they're saying these additional interceptor missiles will be in place in Alaska around 2017, later in the year, but only if the testing shows it's workable. So even though there's a sense of urgency today about what's being said and done in North Korea, we're really quite a ways off here.

And the big questions, of course, are this: Would North Korea actually launch a missile against the United States, and would these missile interceptors work? And frankly nobody knows for sure, but the Pentagon says, we have high confidence.

BLOCK: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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