WASHINGTON — Reacting to reports that North Korea may be preparing to test-fire a missile toward Hawaii, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he had ordered additional missile defense assets deployed to shore up defense of the islands.
Gates ordered the deployment of a powerful sea-based radar system that can help closely track the path of intercontinental ballistic missiles and also sent terminal-phase missile interceptors to Hawaii.
His comments may be meant to deter North Korea from attempting another long-range missile launch and to reassure allies that the United States is willing to act to prevent a successful test by Pyongyang.
According to reports in Japanese media, the North Koreans appear to be preparing for their next long-range test around July 4. Experts believe because the last long-range missile test failed, Pyongyang has more to prove and may see as another test as necessary.
Although Gates did not explicitly say that the United States would try to shoot down a test missile aimed in the direction of Hawaii, he noted that interceptor missiles in California and Alaska were ready.
"The ground-based interceptors are clearly in a position to take action," Gates said. "So without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say I think we are in a good position should it become necessary to protect American territory."
Victor D. Cha, a scholar at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said Gates' comments could be meant as a deterrent.
"It is probably to let the North Koreans and the world know we are going to prepare a response if they are going to continue to launch missiles, particularly if they are going to launch it in the direction of Hawaii," said Cha, who was President George W. Bush's top adviser on North Korea.
This week, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was "90 percent-plus" confident the United States could shoot down a North Korean missile.
Cha said Gates' assertive words show more confidence by the military and government in the missile defense system.
"We are just more capable now," Cha said. "We are much more willing to say we are preparing missile defenses if we are confident we would be able to take something out either in the boost phase or on a ballistic path." Theater missiles in the Pacific Ocean, which target the boost phase, or the mid-course interceptors in Alaska and California would be the most likely defenses able to shoot down a North Korean missile.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles Gates deployed are meant to shoot down short-range missiles minutes before they strike their target. They have not been tested on long-range rockets.