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Top admiral: US must bolster missile defense to counter North Korea

The Hill logo The Hill 2/14/2018 Rebecca Kheel
Harry B. Harris wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera © Provided by The Hill

The top U.S. admiral in the Asia-Pacific region said Wednesday that projections of North Korea's weapons capabilities in a few years mean the United States must bolster its missile defenses, particularly on Hawaii.

"I do believe that we have that capability today in 2018," Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee, when asked about missile defense protecting the homeland.

"But given where we think, without going into classified subjects, but given where we think the North Korean capability might be in terms of their missiles in three or four years or in the early 2020s, I think we must continue to improve our missile defenses," he said. "And that's why I'm an advocate for the defensive Hawaii radar system and I've advocated for a study to look at whether we should look at putting ground-based interceptors or something like that in Hawaii."

Harris also said the U.S. must continue to improve the capabilities of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Guam, as well as the ballistic missile defense ships stationed around Japan.

The admiral has previously advocated for interceptors in Hawaii. But his renewed recommendation Wednesday comes after a year of significant progress in North Korea's nuclear and missile program.

In September, North Korea tested its most powerful nuclear weapon to date, likely a hydrogen bomb. The nation also tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in November that could reach the entire United States.

Harris's comments also come after Hawaiian residents spent 38 minutes in fear last month after a false missile alert was sent out. That incident was not raised during Wednesday's hearing.

A $1 billion radar for Hawaii is in the works and expected to be operational by 2023, which Harris said he is grateful for.

But, he added, the country should also look into adding interceptor capability to Hawaii.

"I am confident in our ground-based systems today to intercept and protect Hawaii - and those ground-based systems are in California and Alaska - but I think in the years ahead it would do us well to at least study of putting some kind of interceptor capability in Hawaii," Harris said.

Harris said there are several options for missile defense in Hawaii, including Aegis Ashore, THAAD and a ground-based system. But based on the trajectory of a missile from North Korea, Aegis and THAAD might not be the best options, he said.

After the hearing, Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the committee's chairman, said the United States has "lost so many years" that there's not enough time for a study. He pledged missile defense will be part of this year's defense policy bill, but said he would not mandate a specific system for Hawaii.

"It is very important that we be able to defend all of the United States and its territories," Thornberry said. "I hope that what we're seeing is an increased urgency to deploy more of existing systems and to develop new systems."

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