Alaska-based interceptor missiles capable of knocking out long-range North Korean missiles remain at a high state of readiness despite the apparent reduction in tensions with Pyongyang following the recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis toured Fort Greely, Alaska, this week, home of the Pentagon’s ground-based interceptor missile defense system. The missile defense base is located in central Alaska about 70 miles south of Fairbanks and is staffed by several hundred soldiers on constant watch for any long-range missile strikes.
The base houses 44 ground-based interceptors in silos and is being expanded.
“That is a critical component in the American deterrent effort against the use of missiles against our country,” Mr. Mattis told reporters after visiting the base, one of the more secret U.S. military facilities. “It’s a very sobering reminder for our adversaries that we are able to defend ourselves.”
Mr. Mattis declined to discuss his visit. But Fort Greely recently invited local reporters to witness a demonstration at an unclassified portion of the facility where troops conducted a drill that led to simulated firing of interceptors in response to an incoming enemy missile.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who traveled with Mr. Mattis to Fort Greely, said the missile defense base is being upgraded due to the North Korean threat.
“We’re building it up,” he said. “Nobody’s stopping. The threat is increasing, and the administration and Congress are working together to increase [missile defenses], and a lot of that is taking place in Alaska.”
Based on the growing North Korean missile threat, another 20 ground-based interceptors will be added at Fort Greely, Mr. Sullivan said. The new interceptors could be in place as early as 2023, and the Pentagon has said the defenses also could be used to protect against Iranian long-range missile attacks in the future.
The defense authorization bill pending in Congress also contains funding for new space-based sensors aimed at bolstering missile defenses.
Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to Congress in March that the North Korean dictator carried out a “rapid, ambitious missile-development and flight-testing program” in recent years that has moved Pyongyang closer than ever before to having missiles capable of striking the United States with nuclear warheads.
The missile threats, according to Gen. Ashley, include two tests of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental missile in July 2016, and then a test of a more powerful Hwsong-15 in November. Both are capable of striking the United States, he said.
Mr. Mattis was asked whether a successful outcome of the North Korean nuclear talks could reduce the need to add interceptors at Fort Greely.
“If I had a crystal ball, I could better answer [the question], because even if one threat goes away — and let’s all wish the diplomats well who are working this now — we have to stay alert to other things in the world that could constitute a threat,” Mr. Mattis said.
The defense secretary appeared to be suggesting that missile threats are not diminishing. U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned about the growing threat of Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles — maneuverable weapons designed to fly at very high speeds along the edge of space — designed to defeat missile defenses like those deployed in Alaska.
The North Korean missile threat has not gone away, “so clearly we take that very, very seriously,” he said.
Mr. Mattis noted Alaska’s strategic location. The state was once called “Seward’s folly,” after the secretary of state who purchased the northern land mass from Russia in 1867.
“I think we would call it anything but a folly today. It is the gateway to the Pacific for us,” Mr. Mattis said.
“Alaska sits actually in a key location from a strategic point of view, and this is physics at this point. So no, at this time I can’t imagine” a future reduction in missile defenses, Mr. Mattis said.
On the state of relations with North Korea, the defense secretary said, “Right now our job is to make sure that our diplomats speak from a position of strength, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Mr. Sullivan noted that Alaska also serves as a hub for U.S. air combat power for the Asia-Pacific region.
A total of 54 new F-35 advanced jets will be deployed in Alaska in the coming years, and currently two squadrons of F-22 jets are based in Alaska.
The F-22 was designed by the military for a future conflict with China based on its “super cruise” capability that allows for long-range flight in firing long-range missiles.
“Alaska is the absolute center of the defense of our country for the Indo-Pacific region and certainly over the polar ice cap,” Mr. Mattis said.
CHINA AND NORTH KOREA
President Trump recently criticized China for loosening up on the enforcement of international sanctions aimed at curbing illicit trade between China and North Korea.
China remains North Korea’s largest trading partner, and Beijing seemed to undercut Mr. Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign against North Korea by arranging the first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un earlier this year. Shortly after the Xi-Kim summit, North Korea turned up the hostile anti-U.S. rhetoric, prompting Mr. Trump to abruptly cancel summit planning, complaining of Chinese interference.
A senior Pentagon official confirmed that China has fallen down somewhat in preventing illicit trade with North Korea.
“I think over time we’ve seen a little bit of erosion, and I’m not necessarily linking it to the summit itself where the Chinese have said, ‘We’re friends now and we can open things up,’” the official said.
“But I think there have been some issues with a steady erosion of enforcement on the border,” the official added.
The erosion has not reached the point where the Pentagon believes China is not operating in good faith or not enforcing sanctions, however, the official said.
China-North Korea trade has sharply increased over the past 10 years, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
A chart produced by the institute’s Stephen Haggard shows that China’s share of imports from North Korea increased from about $1 billion in 2005 to around $3 billion in 2015. Exports from China to North Korea also sharply increased from less than $1 billion in 2005 to at least $2.5 billion by 2015.
Chinese imports and exports made up the vast majority of all trade for North Korea.
MATTIS ON ELECTRONIC THREATS
“In today’s increasingly interconnected and digital world, your vigilance is our best defense against attack or exploitation of personally identifiable information and other sensitive data,” Mr. Mattis wrote in the June 21 memo to all Pentagon employees.
The defense secretary said the complex security threats posed by the digital environment require a “clear-eyed understanding of our competitors’ capabilities, access, and intent across the cyber domain.”
“The potential consequences of compromised data could be serious, not just for you and your families, but for the readiness and resiliency of this department,” he added. “As we strive to protect our information from falling into the wrong hands, there can be no complacency.”
Mr. Mattis said every employee must be a sentinel in safeguarding personal data and to be careful in sharing information or investing money online.
“Protect your health, biometrics and financial information, along with your Social Security number,” he stated, warning that once information is shared it no longer can be controlled.
The memo was signed with the notice to “Be Alert!” above Mr. Mattis‘ signature.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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