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Anti-Missile System Headed for Guam

Washington — The United States will deploy a sophisticated anti-missile defense system to Guam in response to North Korean threats to U.S. military bases in the Pacific, the Pentagon said yesterday.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) is a relatively new land-based system designed to destroy incoming short, medium and intermediate-range missiles by crashing into them in the air. Only two batteries of the system, produced by Lockheed Martin, are currently deployed, both at Fort Bliss, Texas.

A Pentagon statement said deployment in Guam was expected “in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat.”

The announcement followed North Korea’s banning of South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex near the demilitarized zone. Obama administration officials had said earlier that the move would signal a more serious crisis beyond the bellicose rhetoric issued by North Korea over the past several weeks.

The current crisis began with North Korea’s long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test in February, provoking tighter United Nations sanctions and the deployment of U.S. nuclear-capable stealth bombers to the peninsula as part of ongoing military exercises with South Korea.

On Tuesday, North Korea announced it would re-start a nuclear reactor, shuttered in 2007, that is capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, and declaring a “state of war” in the peninsula.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday called the North Korean actions a “real and clear danger and threat” to the United States’ allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. “They have nuclear capacity now. They have missile delivery capacity now.”

Hagel, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, specifically cited “the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States.”

“We have to take those threats seriously,” he said.

Last month, Hagel said the military will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska over the next three years to counter the threat of long-range North Korean missiles.

The military’s Missile Defense Agency contracted with Lockheed Martin last August to produce 12 new THAAD launchers, for a total of five batteries of the system. In addition to the two already deployed in Texas, the Pentagon agreed in late 2011 to sell two batteries to the United Arab Emirates as part of a $16 billion package of U.S. defense equipment to the UAE and Qatar.

It was not clear whether the decision to deploy the THAAD system to Guam will delay the UAE delivery. That transaction, intended to boost Persian Gulf defenses against the threat from Iran, marked the first overseas sale of the missile defense system.

The THAAD missile has an estimated range of about 120 miles and was designed as one element in an integrated defense system that includes the AEGIS missile for long-range threats and the short-range Patriot missile.