U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he has ordered the deployment of a new missile defense system and a sophisticated tracking radar to respond to any North Korean missile launch that threatens Hawaii. Meanwhile, America's top military officer says the U.S. Navy is prepared to try to stop North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons banned by a new United Nations Security Council resolution.
Secretary Gates says the United States is watching North Korea's missile launch preparations "very closely" and he has ordered a new high-altitude missile interceptor system deployed to Hawaii, along with a floating radar system to provide tracking data.
"We do have some concerns if they [North Korea] were to launch a missile in the direction of Hawaii," said Secretary Gates. "I've directed the deployment again of THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] missiles to Hawaii and the SBX [Sea Based X-Band] radar has deployed away from Hawaii to provide support. Without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say I think we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect American territory."
Gates told a Pentagon news conference that anti-missile missiles based in Alaska are also ready to defend against any North Korean threat. The secretary was responding to a Japanese newspaper report that an anticipated North Korean missile test - expected as early as next month - might involve a launch toward Hawaii, some 7,000 kilometers away.
But experts say the most advanced North Korean missile would fall short of Hawaii, even in a successful launch, and previous tests have not come close to achieving that kind of distance.
On Tuesday, the number-two U.S. military officer, General James Cartwright, told Congress he is more than 90 percent confident that the American missile defense system would be able to shoot down a North Korean missile approaching U.S. territory, even though the system is not fully developed or deployed.
While preparing for a possible North Korean missile launch, U.S. forces are also beginning to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last Friday, which calls for the interdiction of ships believed to be carrying weapons or nuclear material to or from North Korea.
Officials said Thursday that the United States is tracking a North Korean ship, but they would not say what, if any, action has been taken. The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, would not confirm that, but he said this at the news conference with Secretary Gates:
"We intend to vigorously enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874," said Admiral Mullen.
Admiral Mullen noted that the resolution does not provide for the forcible boarding of ships on the high seas, but that it does empower the world's navies to ask permission to board ships and to escort them to port, if they refuse. North Korea has said it would consider any such move an act of war.
Again, Joint Chief's of Staff Chairman, Michael Mullen:
"It's important that this is a U.N. resolution, this is an international commitment," he said. "It's not just the United States. It's a lot of other countries as well. And the North taking steps to further isolate itself, to further non-comply with international guidance and regulations, in the long run, puts them in a more difficult position."
U.S. officials have been in a series of meetings with key regional nations to try to develop a unified international response if North Korea launches a long-range missile or conducts another nuclear test.
Secretary Gates said the United States, Japan and South Korea are working closely together. But he added that while China voted in favor of the Security Council resolution, it remains to be seen whether Chinese leaders have fundamentally changed their policy toward North Korea.