U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Missiles in paradise: Kauai island faces controversial Hawaii defense plan

Amid North Korea provocations, US could activate Pacific batteries at serene tourist locale

LIHUE, Hawaii — When 2016 began with North Korea declaring it had detonated a hydrogen bomb, its fourth nuclear test, the U.S. military had already tested a land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Hawaii — Lockheed Martin’s version of the short-to-intermediate-range ballistic missile defense (BMD) system used on Aegis Navy destroyers.

Now, as tension mounts after Pyongyang’s satellite launch on Feb. 7, media reports suggest the Pentagon is mulling making the Aegis Ashore test facility operational at the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at the Barking Sands naval base on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

A Navy spokesman said, “There are no plans for an operational site of Aegis Ashore at PMRF. It was constructed as a test and training site only.” But Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has publicly stated that he believes the Aegis Ashore test facility should be considered as an operational site.

Home to the Kauai Test Facility rocket launch range (operated by Sandia National Laboratories), the PMRF clings to a narrow strip of coastline on the far west of the island, largely out of view. The facility offers 2.1 million square miles of controlled air and sea space, making it a prized asset for the U.S. military.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about a more militarized Hawaii.

Raymond Catania of the Kauai Alliance for Peace and Social Justice said any further militarization of his home island is unhelpful. He said an Aegis system on Kauai would put the U.S. in direct conflict with China. He pointed to the military buildup on Okinawa, Japan, and on Jeju Island, where South Korea has built a large naval base.

He said making the PMRF combat ready would be a dangerous move but added that with many people in Hawaii dependent on the military for jobs, the likelihood of widespread opposition is small. “On Kauai, you’re going to have the political apparatus — the business elements in the community — say we need this buildup, it’s jobs,” he said. “But we have to wean the working class away from war for employment.”

Another Hawaii resident, retired Army Col. Ann Wright of Veterans for Peace said, “There is no doubt that deployment of operational Aegis missiles on Kauai would be seen by the Chinese and North Korean governments as an offensive, not defensive, measure and intentional provocation by the U.S., increasing instability in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The missile testing facility on Kauai is just miles from popular tourist sites.
Jon Letman

Aegis Ashore testing on Kauai was first proposed by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, in 1999. The PMRF was the launch site of the first Aegis Ashore fly-out test in May 2014 and saw its first successful intercept in December 2015.

Today one of Aegis Ashore’s most active proponents is the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. Its chairman, Riki Ellison, said in an email that deploying Aegis Ashore on Kauai would offer “persistent 24/7 coverage [and] tremendous cost savings.”

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has requested $514 million for Aegis missile defense for 2017. In December the first Aegis Ashore system was declared technically capable at a new U.S. naval base in Deveselu, Romania, where it will begin defensive operations by this summer. A second similar site is scheduled for completion in Poland by the end of 2018.

Aegis Ashore launches Raytheon’s (SM)-3 Block IB guided missiles, but in order for the PMRF to be made combat ready, Ellison said, a dedicated crew of Navy Aegis BMD specialists would be needed, as well as minor software changes, the installation of interceptors in existing launchers and an enhanced security force — which, he said, would provide local employment opportunities. With close to 1,000 jobs tied to the base, the PMRF is one of the island’s largest employers.

A target missile moments before being hit by an (SM)-3 interceptor, a kind of missile that could be deployed at the Kauai facility.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

But jobs are not the only things at stake.

Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said in a statement, “The anti-missile issue has a direct bearing on global and regional balance and stability. All measures seeking to increase military capacities will only intensify antagonism. China hopes the relevant country will adopt a responsible attitude and act prudently in regard to the anti-missile issue.”

All four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation declined requests for comment, but all have been outspoken proponents of expanded sanctions against North Korea and support a more aggressive military posture that includes increased missile defense capabilities in Hawaii and the Pacific.

Speaking on the House floor in January, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said, “North Korea continues to pose a serious and dangerous threat to my constituents in Hawaii, the Pacific and the West Coast of the United States. Our communities, our families lie within range of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

David Santoro, a senior fellow for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum/Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the threat posed by North Korea has often been exaggerated, North Korea’s missile capabilities are improving.

He thinks an attack from North Korea against the U.S. is unlikely but said the threat is increasing. “Missile defense is one way to defend against this threat. It is not a silver bullet, but it is one important solution to the problem,” he said.

Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association in Washington wrote in an email, “While missile defenses have a role to play in confronting the North Korea threat … it can’t be a substitute for a diplomatic strategy.”

Augmenting missile defenses hasn’t deterred North Korea from advancing its nuclear capabilities, but it complicates U.S.-China relations, he said.

‘Missile defense is one way to defend against [the North Korea] threat. It is not a silver bullet, but it is one important solution to the problem.’

David Santoro

senior fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS

Alexis Dudden, a history professor and an authority on Korea and Japan at the University of Connecticut, agreed that North Korean actions must be taken seriously but dismissed the idea that Pyongyang would attack the U.S. or its allies, because the North Korean leadership knows that would ensure its own destruction.

“We need to be ready for a different scenario,” she said, “which is far more likely — the internal collapse of North Korea.” She advocates for more engagement, even when answers are not forthcoming. “If we’re really deeply interested in bringing about a peaceful and prosperous Northeast Asia that engages, then we need to be asking different questions.”

Meanwhile, China reportedly deployed missile batteries to a disputed island in the South China Sea earlier this month, and Washington and Seoul prepared for possible talks about deploying in South Korea the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, already deployed on Guam.

Despite the Navy’s repeating that there are no plans for operational missile defenses on Kauai, the head of U.S. Pacific Command was quoted saying, “It may be a good idea.”

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