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To counter North Korea, admiral says the U.S. should consider adding ballistic missile interceptors in Hawaii

Video: U.S. commander on Kim Jong Un: 'Bring him to his senses, not to his knees' (Video: Reuters)

The top U.S. military officer in the Pacific said Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today” with a ballistic missile attack and that the Pentagon should consider adding new ballistic missile interceptors and defensive radar there to counter that possibility.

Navy Adm. Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee there are already “sufficient” ballistic missile interceptors protecting the United States at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But he added there is a possibility that not every missile would be stopped in an attack. Hawaii, about 2,500 miles to California’s southwest, could benefit from having new equipment to protect itself, he said.

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“I believe that our ballistic missile architecture is sufficient to protect Hawaii today, but it can be overwhelmed,” Harris said. If the United States faced a wave of incoming ballistic missiles, “someone would have to make a decision on which one to take out or not. So that’s a difficult decision.”

Asked specifically about the defense of the continental United States, Harris added: “I do believe that the numbers could be improved. In other words, we need more interceptors.”

The comments are a new sign of U.S. concerns about the threat Pyongyang poses, and came ahead of an unusual White House briefing Wednesday afternoon about North Korea scheduled by the Trump administration for U.S. senators. The session included presentations by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior administration officials.

The Washington Post's David Nakamura explains why the White House is hosting the entire Senate for a meeting on North Korea on April 26. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Harris said that the United States wants to bring the North Korean leader “to his senses, but not to his knees.” It is unclear whether North Korea will launch a preemptive attack against the United States or its allies, but U.S. officials are reaching an “inflection point” in which North Korea can carry through on repeated threats to do so, the admiral said.

The Pentagon has long assessed that North Korea has a large arsenal of ballistic missiles that are capable of reaching targets in South Korea or Japan, but Pyongyang’s development of a long-range ballistic missile that can reach Hawaii or the continental United States is unclear. North Korea has released numerous videos threatening overwhelming attacks on cities like Washington and New York.

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Harris was not specific about what kind of interceptors he may see as prudent in Hawaii. There are currently 36 ground-based missiles at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base, but the Navy and Missile Defense Agency also combine to oversee the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program, which launches defensive missiles from ships at sea. Some defense officials have advocated turning an Aegis test site in Hawaii into a site ashore that can defend the islands there and the continental United States.

A spokesman for Harris, Navy Cmdr. David Benham, said after the hearing that the admiral “fully recognizes that sufficient protections are in place today for defense of Hawaii against the current ballistic missile threat.” The admiral “feels strongly about studying the improvement of defenses for Hawaii against future, evolving threats, to include enhanced sensor coverage and deploying interceptors,” Benham said.

Another military official, Navy Capt. Darryn James, said Harris is “agnostic” on what kind of missiles could be added in Hawaii.

In recent days, the Navy has positioned the USS Carl Vinson strike group within a two-hour flight from North Korea for U.S. strike aircraft, Harris said. The Navy also sent the USS Michigan, an Ohio-class guided-missile submarine, to South Korea, and will have a defensive missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) operational in South Korea within days.

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The admiral said that if North Korea were to launch an attack against U.S. ships off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, they would be able to defend themselves.

“The weapons that North Korea would put against the Carl Vinson strike group are easily defended by the capabilities resident in that strike group,” he said. “If it flies, it will die if it’s flying against the Carl Vinson strike group.”

North Korea conducted a live-fire artillery drill to mark the founding of the country's army on April 25. (Video: Reuters)

Harris, who has repeatedly questioned China’s military expansion in the South China Sea, said Wednesday that China has recently been helpful in pressuring North Korea to change its development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. But he added that he is still concerned about China’s operations in the South China Sea, and that the United States should be able to criticize them while simultaneously showing gratitude for help against North Korea.

“Despite subsequent Chinese assurances that they would not militarize these bases, today they now have facilities that support long-range weapons emplacements, fighter aircraft hangers, radar towers and barracks for troops,” Harris said. “China’s militarization of South China Sea is real.”

This story was updated at 6:03 p.m. with additional reporting, including comments from the admiral’s spokesman.

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