COLORADO SPRINGS | U.S. missile defenses are prepared to try to knock down the last stage of a Taepodong-2 missile that North Korea is expected soon to launch if sensors detect the weapon threatens U.S. territory, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command told The Washington Times.
“The nation has a very, very credible ballistic-missile defense capability. Our ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California, I’m very comfortable, give me a capability that if we really are threatened by a long-range ICBM that I’ve got high confidence that I could interdict that flight before it caused huge damage to any U.S. territory,” said Air Force Gen. Victor E. “Gene” Renuart, Northcom commander.
The general said the United States won’t activate its missile defenses if the North Korean missile appears it will fall safely into the water as the country’s last test missile did.
(Corrected paragraph:) Asked if North Korea is likely to conduct a July 4 Taepodong-2 test, as occurred in 2006, Gen. Renuart said in an interview this week with The Times at Northern Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, “I think we ought to assume there might be one on the first of July and continue to be prepared and ready.”
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Gen. Renuart, who is commander of the military’s first combatant command devoted to defending against threats to U.S. territory, is also the commander of the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which monitors missile launches around the world and also foreign military aircraft intrusions of U.S. air space. Since Sept. 11, 2001, NORAD is also in charge of tracking civilian aircraft to be ready to respond to a terrorist hijacking.
Gen. Renuart said North Korea’s leaders are unpredictable and their “decision logic does not always follow in the same vein as ours does.”
The four-star commander said that in addition to long-range interceptors, U.S. missile defenses in the Asia Pacific region include U.S. ground- and sea-based defense systems.
They include ground-based Patriot anti-missile defenses deployed in South Korea, and U.S. Navy Aegis system missile-defense ships deployed to waters near Japan. Recently, the Pentagon also activated units of the Army’s new Theater High-Altitude Area Defenses that were undergoing testing in Hawaii, in response to indications that North Korea is set to fire a Taepodong-2.
The regional defenses augment the long-range interceptors based at two sites, one in Alaska and one in California, Gen. Renuart said.
The Pacific Command missile defenses provide “a pretty well-integrated ground-based theater defense capability,” he said.
“I think we are certainly ready and capable of responding,” Gen. Renuart said.
The wild card in any future North Korean missile test remains the many unknowns about the regime in Pyongyang and whether it will attempt the test or irrationally fire a warhead toward Hawaii, he said.
“In terms of what North Korea’s decision process may be, or their logic, you got a Ph.D. in intentions, and you probably can’t figure that out,” Gen. Renuart said.
The recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s May 25 nuclear test and authorizing unified international action to stem Pyongyang’s arms and missile proliferation has affected the regime, he said.
Additionally, North Korea has said that any attempt to interdict its ships, an action authorized in a limited way by the U.N. resolution, would be regarded as an act of war.
“We’ve all been watching the North Korean ship that was headed south, and it continues to be one in a number of ways the North Korean leadership seems to try get attention and create an effect,” Gen. Renuart said.
The North Korean ship, Kang Nam 1, was being tracked with a suspected weapons-related shipment to Myanmar, but a defense official said Wednesday the latest reports indicate the ship had turned away from its planned route.
Asked the threshold for a U.S. military missile-defense strike on the North Korean missile, Gen. Renuart said, “We will not intercept something that is not a threat to North America or U.S. land space in Hawaii.”
If the missile falls harmlessly in the ocean, there is no reason to conduct an attempted intercept using regional or strategic interceptors, he said.
“The system is designed to tell us, A, where it’s coming from, and roughly where it’s going,” he said. “And if that where-it’s-going piece begins to threaten U.S. land mass, whether we know it’s a live or training [warhead], the system will allow us to engage it.
“Prudence will dictate that, even if the warhead configuration of the missile is not a real warhead,” Gen. Renuart said, “It’s hard to allow that to threaten our territory without doing something about it. It would be hard to tell the American people we didn’t do anything.”
The current system is “up and ready” for any North Korean launch, he said.
However, a U.S. defense official said it is unlikely that the Taepodong-2 being monitored at a North Korean launch site will be ready for launch by July 4. The liquid-fueled missile takes days to prepare for launch, including the loading of large amounts of liquid rocket fuel. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The North Koreans could launch short- or medium-range missiles around the July Fourth holiday, however, the official said.
Press reports from South Korea and Japan recently stated that North Korea planned to launch the Taepodong-2 toward Hawaii, but U.S. defense officials said the direction of the shot will not be determined until shortly after launch.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center, in its latest report on missile threats made public in May, lists the single-warhead Taepodong-2 as having a range greater than 3,400 miles.
“The missile can hit Hawaii and Alaska, and it may be able to reach the western continental United States with a lighter, chemical warhead,” said Richard Fisher, a specialist on missiles with the private International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Gen. Renuart said a large sea-based X-band radar, a very high-powered radar system used to track and target missiles, has sailed from Hawaii in preparation for the test.
The ground-based missile-defense interceptors, the ground-based radar and the Aegis cruisers around Japan “have been in place for a period of time,” he said.
“I’m comfortable we have all we need,” he said.
Gen. Renuart said he had requested using the X-band radar, which is built on a floating oil-rig platform, for use in an April test-firing of a long-range rocket by North Korea.
Defense officials said the general’s request at that time was turned down by the Pentagon, prompting some critics to say that not deploying the radar — which was undergoing maintenance at the time in Hawaii — was a missed opportunity to collect test data on the missile.
“We had requested the X-band radar [earlier this year] before we really knew what was going on at the launch site,” Gen. Renuart said.
A risk assessment was done on whether to halt the upgrading of the radar and send it to sea.
“Once it became clear that this was not an ICBM launch, but rather a space-launch test, and understanding that we don’t intercept space launches, there really wasn’t the need to interrupt the modification and improvements,” Gen. Renuart said.
Regarding the current North Korean preparations, Gen. Renuart said current indications are “this seems to be that if something occurs, it will be ICBM-focused.”
The X-band radar will provide technical information on the North Korean missile, he said without elaborating.