Concerns over North Korea restart debate on East Coast missile shield

North Korea's nuclear saber-rattling has reignited debate on Capitol Hill on the need for a missile defense system on the Eastern Seaboard.

The recent round of North Korean nuclear weapons tests, coupled with the aggressive rhetoric coming from Pyongyang, amounted to "a wake up call" on the need for a new missile system in the east, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Tuesday.

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“I hope they keep their eyes open,” Ayotte said, emphasizing time was running out for the administration to take action on missile defense.

Noting the Pentagon's recent decision to build a new battery of missile interceptors in Alaska, "the next issue that needs to be taken up right away is [a] missile defense site to protect the East Coast of this country," she said during a speech in Washington.

House Republicans last year spearheaded a politically charged debate to erect an East Coast shield, with Democrats claiming the push was a GOP attempt to undercut the White House's national security credentials.

The concern, according to the House GOP, is that if systems in Alaska and on the West Coast cannot intercept a missile strike from North Korea or Iran, no backup system exists to protect the Eastern Seaboard. 

The missile shield plan was scuttled in the final version of the 2013 Defense Authorization Act, but North Korea's recent actions to push its nuclear weapons program forward has brought the issue back into the congressional spotlight. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last Friday announced plans to deploy an additional 14 ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska, an increase of nearly 50 percent of the total U.S. missile defense force on the West Coast.

Hagel said the move was being made in response to the threats made by North Korea to attack the United States with nuclear weapons and the country’s recent advancements in its missile and nuclear capabilities.

In addition, Pentagon officials said Monday that the U.S. is flying B-52 bombers over South Korea on training missions to make plain Washington's commitment to its ally and U.S. military strength. B-52s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, although a Pentagon spokesman said the training flights were not armed with nuclear weapons.

A B-52 bomber mission flew over South Korea on March 8, and another was scheduled for Tuesday, officials said.

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday used the new Alaska site to press top Pentagon brass on the need for an East Coast shield.

Ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) pressed Northern Command chief Gen. Charles Jacoby, whose command is responsible for the U.S. missile defense system, on whether an East Coast shield was necessary to defend America's shores.

The Alaska site is a positive step, but "that doesn't resolve the problem of the East Coast," Inhofe said during Tuesday's hearing.

"The threat is very real [and] it needs to be corrected ... it needs to be addressed," he added.

During Tuesday's hearing, Inhofe forced Jacoby to admit that U.S. missile defense systems were not in an "optimum position" to defend against potential ballistic missile strikes, even with the new Alaska site.

"We have the capability of limited defense right now, and I think that it's not optimum," Jacoby told the Oklahoma Republican. But the addition of the Alaska site was one of several "important steps" taken by the Defense Department to address the missile threat from North Korea.

"I think that we need to continue to assess the threat and make sure that we stay ahead of it and not fall behind it," Jacoby said, "I think that that is a process that we are committed to."

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) questioned that commitment during Tuesday's hearing, shifting focus from North Korea to the potential nuclear threat emanating from Iran.

"If the Iranians are able to have a system that can reach ... the East Coast by 2015, are we already behind" in U.S. efforts to mitigate that threat, Fischer asked.

Jacoby questioned the notion that Tehran could have the ability to hit the Eastern Seaboard by 2015. "We don't think that threat has resolved itself yet," Jacoby said. 

Nonetheless, Jacoby added, "it's my belief that Iran is actively pursuing an [intercontinental ballistic missile] capability, and so I think it's prudent to be taking steps to hedge against the evolution of that threat."

Outgoing Senate Armed Services chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.) attempted to quash the notion that North Korea's actions demand the creation of a East Coast shield.

"It's quite the opposite," Levin said regarding the connection between Pyongyang's nuclear efforts and the need for a new missile shield, saying North Korea's efforts already prompted the new Alaska site.

"People who have [already] reached their conclusions" on a East Coast shield "need to step back a little" and see what steps DOD has already taken to mitigate the threat, Levin said.

"I would hope we’d let the [DOD] analysis and additional capability ... take place and then make a judgment at that time whether an East Coast site is needed," he added.

But Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine admitted the debate over a new East Coast shield "has gotten a bit sharper" since Pyongyang's recent ramp-up of its nuclear weapons program. "It is a [continuing] concern," he added.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are facing "some very legitimate defense issues" concerning the nuclear threat from North Korea and Iran in the face of major fiscal pressures on the Pentagon and White House, according to Kaine.

Still, "now is the time to be having [this] discussion," he added.

Jeremy Herb contributed to this story