The Pentagon needs to consider deploying new anti-ballistic missile systems and a defensive radar to Hawaii to protect against a growing threat from North Korea, the top U.S. military officer in the Pacific told Congress on Wednesday.
“Kim Jong Un is clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today, in my opinion,” Adm. Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee. “I have suggested that we consider putting interceptors in Hawaii that … defend (it) directly, and that we look at a defensive Hawaii radar.”
The U.S. currently has anti-missile interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and in Fort Greely, Alaska.
Harris was repeatedly questioned by lawmakers from Hawaii on the threat posed to their state.
The current defense architecture “is sufficient to protect Hawaii today, but it can be overwhelmed,” he cautioned. “Somewhere, we would have to make a decision about which missiles to take out, and that’s a hard decision.”
Harris warned that North Korea’s testing is picking up speed and becoming more aggressive; the country conducted more than 20 ballistic missile tests last year.
“North Korea vigorously pursued a strategic strike capability in 2016,” he told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Kim’s strategic capabilities are not yet an existential threat to the U.S., but if left unchecked, he will gain the capability to match his rhetoric.”
The chief of U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees all military operations in the region, testified a few hours before the entire U.S. Senate was scheduled to go to the White House for a rare classified meeting to discuss the North Korean threat.
Harris stressed to lawmakers that there is a sense of urgency. The USS Carl Vinson strike group, which has positioned itself in the Philippine Sea, can now reach North Korea in a two-hour flight, he said.
“With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike capability against American cities,” he said. “Defending our homeland is my top priority, so I must assume that Kim Jong Un’s nuclear claims are true.”
He dismissed North Korea’s threats to sink the aircraft carrier and its strike group, saying “if it flies, it will die.”
Echoing President Donald Trump, he said the military has to consider “every possible option” when dealing with North Korea, but also cautioned that the objective should be “to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not his knees.”
After meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump praised China’s willingness to help with North Korea, and expressed optimism that they would do more to deter Kim Jong Un from holding additional tests.
China has significant leverage with North Korea, with 80 percent of North Korea’s economy depending on ties to the country. But defense officials say Pyongyang is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons program no matter how much pressure its main ally applies.
“Denuclearization is unlikely at this point — at least in the near term and at least under this regime,” Kelly Magsamen, former principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Magsamen said that while military options should remain on the table, they should be considered the very last resort.
“We should not kid ourselves here, a conflict on the peninsula would be unlike anything we have seen in decades,” she said. “North Korea is not a Syria, it’s not an Iraq, the consequences could be extremely high.”
A U.S. advanced missile defense system that is being installed in South Korea will be operational in a few days, Harris said on Wednesday. The U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy the $800 million system last July in a deal brokered under the now-impeached South Korean president, Park Geun-hye.
The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, can target short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in flight. China and Russia have opposed the defense system, saying it undermines their own security interests.
Harris said that the visit of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who made South Korea and Japan his first international trip, and Vice President Mike Pence sends the “right signal” to allies in the region.
After Trump’s election, there had been concerns that he would follow through on campaign threats to withdraw American troops if the two countries don’t pay a larger share of defense costs.
Vera BERGENGRUEN for Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.