HUNTSVILLE, Alabama - The United States, concerned about North Korea, will double to six by the end of the year the number of its ships in the Pacific capable of shooting down enemy ballistic missiles, the head of the Pentagon missile-defence project involved has announced.
"I think it gives the nation more options," Rear Adm. Alan Hicks, program manager for Aegis ballistic missile defence, told reporters after speaking to a conference on the fledgling US shield.
In coming years, a growing number of ship-based interceptor missiles will be deployed on 18 Aegis cruisers and destroyers as part of a multibillion-dollar US defence push stoked by fears of North Korea and Iran.
The six ships due to be available this year will carry a specialized Aegis combat system developed by Lockheed Martin as well as Standard Missile SM-3 interceptors built by Raytheon, Hicks said.
As such, they will be able to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as well as against any threats to themselves, he said.
Longer-range, intercontinental missiles travel faster than the current generation of ship-based interceptors, or about 6,000 miles an hour, he said. Japan and the United States are co-developing an advanced model, dubbed SM-3 Block 2, to tackle the long-range threat, with plans to deploy it by 2015.
North Korea test-fired a barrage of seven missiles starting on the US July 4 Independence Day holiday, including a long-range Taepodong 2 with an estimated range that includes the United States. It failed about 40 seconds after launch.
The six shorter-range shots marked successful test flights, showing North Korea's "intent to build out," Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency, told reporters.
None of the three US Aegis ships then capable of shooting down ballistic missiles was on station during the North Korean launches, though other Aegis ships helped track them as part of the layered US anti-missile shield, Hicks said.
The United States has taken other steps to meet the perceived threat of North Korean missiles, which could be tipped with nuclear, chemical or germ weapons.
It is sending Lockheed Martin/Raytheon Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air interceptors to Kadena Air Base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa from September and plans to make them partly operational by the end of the year, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said last month.