WASHINGTON — Amid mounting tension with North Korea, the Pentagon has delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test that had been planned for this month at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a senior defense official told the Associated Press on Saturday.
The official said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided to put off the long-planned Minuteman 3 test until next month because of concerns the launch could be misinterpreted and exacerbate the Korean crisis. Hagel made the decision Friday, the official said.
The test was not connected to the U.S.-South Korean military exercises that have been going on in that region and have stoked North Korean anger, fueling an escalation in threatening actions and rhetoric.
North Korea’s military warned last week that it was authorized to attack the United States using “smaller, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons. South Korean officials say North Korea has moved at least one missile with “considerable range” to its east coast — possibly the untested Musudan missile, believed to have a range of 1,800 miles. U.S. officials have said the missile move suggests a North Korean launch could be imminent .
Pyongyang’s moves come on the heels of the North’s nuclear test in February and the launch in December of a long-range rocket that could potentially hit the continental United States. Added to that is the uncertainty surrounding the intentions of North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un.
Meanwhile, North Korea has been angered by increasing sanctions and ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which have included a broad show of force ranging from stealthy B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters to a wide array of warships capable of ballistic missile defense. The exercises are scheduled to continue through the end of the month.
This past week, the United States said two of the Navy’s missile-defense ships were moved closer to the Korean peninsula, and a land-based system is being deployed to the Pacific territory of Guam this month. The Pentagon last month announced longer-term plans to beef up its U.S.-based missile defenses.
While Washington is taking the North Korean threats seriously, U.S. leaders continue to say that they have seen no visible signs that the North is preparing for a large-scale attack.
The defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the Minuteman 3 test delay and requested anonymity, said U.S. policy continues to support building and testing its nuclear deterrent capabilities. The official said the launch was not put off because of any technical problem.
The globe-circling intercontinental ballistic missiles make up one of the three legs of America’s nuclear arsenal. There are about 450 Minuteman 3 missiles based in underground silos in the north central United States. The other two legs of the nuclear arsenal are submarine-launched ballistic missiles and weapons launched from big bombers, such as the B-52 and the stealthy B-2.
The traditional rationale for the “nuclear triad” of weaponry is that it is essential to surviving any nuclear exchange.