Hagel, Dempsey defend $1 billion missile shift, blame North Korea for tensions

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said their decision to commit $1 billion for additional ballistic missile defenses in Alaska is an appropriate response to North Korea’s nuclear threats and the regime’s potential long-range missile capabilities in the future.

“We don’t have any choice,” Hagel said, “in defending this country but to anticipate worst-case scenarios. We do know the North Koreans have missile capability. We know that they have significant capability.”

Since Hagel announced the Defense Department’s plan to deploy additional ground-based interceptors (GBIs) by 2017, critics outside the Pentagon have argued that President Barack Obama’s national security team was duped by Kim Jong Un’s regime into responding to “fake missiles.”

Publicly, observers are concerned with what appeared to be mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) North Korea showed off last year, as well as a multi-phase rocket that put an object into orbit last year. But critics have pointed out the purported North Korean ICBMs, or KN-08, have yet to pass flight tests, much less qualify as a threat to the American homeland.

Hagel rejected such criticism “about our not-well-thought out strategy” flatly.

“As we think through long-term threats, we have to plan sure for short-term, but also for long-term,” Hagel argued in a Pentagon press briefing on Thursday. “And the announcement that was made a couple of weeks ago wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction to the young leader’s threats in North Korea.”

“You only need to be wrong once,” Hagel continued, “and I don’t know what president, or what chairman, or what secretary of defense wants to be wrong once when it comes to nuclear threats.”

“I would take issue with [the] analysis,” Hagel said, defensively. “There was an awful lot of thought that went into this, and strategic thinking.”

Gen. Dempsey added that the decision to increase GBIs at Fort Greely, in Alaska, is a specific response to North Korea that aligns with his desire to keep ahead of technological threats to the homeland.

The interceptors are just one of several of the Pentagon’s moves that North Korea has called provocative. This week, two B-2 stealth bombers flew from the United States over South Korea, following similar over-flights by American B-52s on March 8, during what DOD offiicals say are ongoing military exercises. Both aircraft are capable of delivering nuclear bombs.

“We, the United States and South Korea have not been involved in provocating [sic] anything,” Hagel argued. “We, the United States, the South Koreans, all of the nations in that region of the world are committed to a pathway to peace,” Hagel said, “and the North Koreans seem to be headed in a different direction.”

The new secretary then fired back at Pyongyang with some of his strongest rhetoric to date.

“We will unequivocally defend, and we are unequivocally committed to that alliance with South Korea, as well as our other allies in that region of the world. And we will be prepared -- we have to be prepared -- to deal with any eventuality there.”

To that end, the United States and South Korea signed a counterattack plan last Friday, which Dempsey said was the result of a two-year deliberation that occurred because South Korea had indicated “they are no longer willing to be provoked.”

Three years ago this week, Seoul was pushed to the brink after North Korea sunk the naval ship Cheonan, killing at least 40 sailors on board. Later in 2010, North Korean artillery struck Yeonpyeong island, killing two Marines and two civilians and sparking some South Koreans to demand retaliation.

At the time, top U.S. defense officials worried that South Korea would be unable to weather further attacks without delivering a military response, which in turn could have spiraled into a catastrophic conflict on the peninsula, potentially drawing in the United States. This new counter-provocation plan, Dempsey said, was crafted to allow the Pentagon to better understand South Korea’s intentions, if directly attacked again.

Dempsey said the Pentagon has spotted North Korean military movements, including artillery, but they are consistent with annual exercises. All eyes, now, are on the regime’s anointed leader, Kim.

“We have to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new young leader has taken so far, since he’s come to power,” Hagel said, batting away a question of whether Kim or the military actually is in charge in Pyongyang. “He’s the leader. I mean, he’s the leader of North Korea.”

DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett