SIMI VALLEY (California) • The agency tasked with protecting the US from missile attacks is scouting the West Coast for places to deploy new anti-missile defences, two Congressmen have said, as North Korea's missile tests raise concerns about how the country would defend itself from an attack.
West Coast defences would likely include Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-ballistic missiles, similar to those deployed in South Korea to protect against a potential North Korean attack.
The accelerated pace of North Korea's ballistic missile testing programme this year and the likelihood that its military could hit the US mainland with a nuclear payload in the next few years has raised the pressure on the US government to build-up missile defences.
Last Wednesday, North Korea tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that can fly more than 13,000km, placing the entire United States mainland within target range, South Korea said last Friday. But Seoul also said Pyongyang still needs to prove it has mastered critical missile technology, such as re-entry, terminal stage guidance and warhead activation.
Congressman Mike Rogers, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee which oversees missile defence, last Saturday said the Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency (MDA) was aiming to install extra defences at West Coast sites.
The funding for the system does not appear in the 2018 defence budget plan, indicating potential deployment is further off.
"It's just a matter of the location, and the MDA making a recommendation as to which site meets their criteria for location, but also the environmental impact," the Republican told Reuters during an interview on the sidelines of the annual Reagan National Defence Forum.
When asked about the plan, MDA deputy director Rear-Admiral Jon Hill said the agency "has received no tasking to site (Thaad) on the West Coast".
Congressman Rogers did not reveal the exact locations the agency is considering but said several sites are "competing".
Mr Rogers and Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat, said the government was considering installing the Thaad system made by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. They said the number of sites had yet to be determined.
Thaad is a ground-based regional missile defence system designed to shoot down short-, medium-and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and takes just weeks to install.
Besides the two Thaad systems deployed in South Korea and Guam in the Pacific, the US has seven other such systems. The system is highly mobile and most current locations are not disclosed.
A Lockheed Martin representative declined to comment on specific Thaad deployments, but added that the company "is ready to support the Missile Defence Agency and the United States government in their ballistic missile defence efforts".
In July, the US tested Thaad missile defences and shot down a simulated, incoming intermediate-range ballistic missile. The successful test adds to the credibility of the US military's missile defence programme, which has come under intense scrutiny in recent years due in part to test delays and failures.
Continental US is primarily shielded by the Ground-based Midcourse Defence system (GMD) in Alaska and California as well as the Aegis system deployed aboard US Navy ships. The Thaad system has a far higher testing success rate than the GMD.
The MDA told Congress in June that it planned to deliver 52 more Thaad interceptors to the US Army between October 2017 and September 2018, bringing the total delivery to 210 since May 2011.