WASHINGTON (AP) The United States has deployed naval ships equipped with ballistic missile defenses and is monitoring North Korea "very closely" ahead of an anticipated rocket launch, the head of US Pacific Command said Thursday.
It was "logical" for US naval ships in the region to track North Korea's launch and "to the degree that those ships are capable of participating in ballistic missile defense, then we'll position them to be able to do that," Admiral Samuel Locklear told reporters.
The US Navy took a similar approach during the last North Korean launch, he added at a Pentagon news conference.
Two guided missile destroyers, the USS Benfold and the USS Fitzgerald, have been sent to the area ahead of the launch, a Navy official told AFP.
The two ships were moving in to "monitor any potential missile launch by North Korea and to reassure regional allies should a launch occur," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Both destroyers are equipped with the sophisticated Aegis ballistic missile defense system.
Locklear said naval ships had been sent to the region "so we understand if they do violate the UN Security Council (resolution) and launch a missile, what kind is it? What is it about? Where does it go? Who's threatened?"
The admiral, who commands US forces in the Asia-Pacific region, added that US forces would also be tracking any stray parts that might fall from the rocket.
Pyongyang has announced it will conduct between December 10 and 22 its second long-range rocket launch this year, after a much-hyped but failed attempt in April.
The North says it will be a purely "peaceful, scientific" mission aimed at placing an Earth observation satellite into orbit.
The United States and its allies insist the launches are disguised tests for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Locklear said North Korea has steadily improved its missile technology but it was unclear whether this month's test would be successful.
"I think they have progressively gained better technology over time through a number of methods, a number of years and decades," he added.
"To the degree that they would be more successful than they were last time in such a short period of time and what they've done to correct it, I can't tell you."