ARLINGTON, Va. --- With North Korea recently testing more missiles than ever before, Army leaders say more needs to be done to deter or even be ready to launch a counterattack if things were to escalate with the rogue nation.
"If you look at the Korean Peninsula, we see a rapidly-developing capability being pursued by Kim Jong-un as the current leader of North Korea," said Gen. Vincent Brooks, who leads all U.S. forces in South Korea.
Since late 2011 when Kim took over the country after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, the country has launched over 120 missiles, as well as conducted two nuclear tests. That's twice as many missile as his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, fired altogether in 40 years, according to Brooks.
"It's very clear in what direction Kim Jong-un is heading and that is to have a full arsenal of capability that can hold the United States at risk for deterrence purposes but also for coercive diplomacy," the general said Tuesday via video teleconference during an air and missile defense forum, hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army.
In response, the Army looks to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD battery to protect South Korea after the service placed one of the high-end missile defense systems in Guam last year. THAAD is designed to shoot down a missile that's descending.
The 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command is also operating a powerful AN/TPY-2 radar in Japan to bolster ballistic missile defense in the region and homeland, said Lt. Gen. Jim Dickinson, who last month took charge of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.
There are also plans to increase the number of ground-based interceptors, based in Alaska and California, from 30 to 44 by the end of this year, Dickinson said of the missiles that can hit intercontinental ballistic missiles at higher altitudes.
"We have made significant improvements in the operations and the mission readiness of the entire ground-based midcourse defense mission," he said at the discussion.
Although a timeframe on deploying a THAAD battery to South Korea was not discussed and despite concern from China that the system's radar could be used against its military, Dickinson said the Army is well into planning for it to happen.
There may be even more urgency to do so following Jong-un's message on Jan. 1 where he claimed that his nation is in the final stages to test ICBMs, which can be placed on mobile launchers and are capable of hitting American soil.
"North Korea continues to improve their mobile ICBMs," Dickinson said, "[and] has likely tested ICBM capabilities in recent space launches."
While visiting South Korea last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the THAAD system would only be used to defend that country and the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there.
"And were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here," he said. "There's no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea."
He also warned that if Jong-un ever decided to attack the U.S. or its allies, there would be an overwhelming and effective response.
"North Korea continues to launch missiles, develop a nuclear weapons program and engage in threatening rhetoric and behavior," Mattis said. "America's commitments to defending our allies and to upholding our extended deterrence guarantees remain iron-clad."
Besides deterrence, Brooks would also like to see offensive capabilities that could strike North Korea from his area of operations.
"Defense is not enough. If we're not also able to kill the archers, then we'll never be able to catch enough arrows," he said, referring to the North's missile arsenal.
Due to the dense population of South Korea, Brooks said that if any missile were to pass by the current defensive measures, it could have a devastating impact.
"So we have to have an offensive capability also integrated into our air and missile defense system," he said.
Jong-un's willingness to pursue costly missile tests, even if they fail for the world to see, also shows strong commitment to have nuclear weapons rather than disband the nuclear program, according to the general.
"There's a desire to mate a nuclear capability with a missile capability, so the full effect of deterrence and coercive diplomacy can be achieved," Brooks said. "It's quite evident that he does this not for the sake of trying to be able to come to the negotiation table."
For this reason, the Army is continuing to build up collaboration and trust between the U.S., South Korea and Japan to create layers of defense against North Korea, he said.
Brooks noted there have been tri-lateral exercises with all three nations, and in November, South Korea and Japan signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement to increase the sharing of information and cooperation between them.
"Without a foundation of trust, we can't expect to see the kind of integration that's necessary against the emerging threats," he said.