With so much going on in Washington and the world these days, it’s no wonder that the remarks of the Hawaii-based Commander in Chief Pacific drew only modest local attention.

Admiral Harry Harris Jr., who has been at the helm of the world’s largest military command for just two years, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that we should be installing a missile defense system here in Hawaii to defend against a potential North Korean nuclear attack.

Harris has repeatedly expressed concern about the threat from North Korea “because you have an unpredictable leader who is in complete command of his country and his military.”

No doubt North Korea’s nuclear program is worrisome. But there are many reasons that building an anti-missile system is not the answer. What’s wrong with a missile defense? The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.


The first intercept flight test of a land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) weapon system and Standard Missile-3 Block IB Threat Upgrade guided missile, launched from the the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai in 2015.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency/Flickr

First, there are the practical aspects. Despite decades of research and development, missile defense is still a hit-or-miss technology. It can’t be relied on for protection, despite incremental improvements over the years, especially in the case of long range missiles, which pose a very different threat than short range non-nuclear missiles, where existing defense systems have proven their value.

Second, remember the old adage—If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. That’s increasingly our problem today. At the same time the Trump administration is seeking dramatic increases in U.S. military spending, and loosening restraints on military commanders, it has decimated the State Department’s top ranks by demanding resignations and then leaving most posts unfilled.

To make matters worse, the administration has put sensitive diplomatic tasks, which should be the province of the diplomatic corps, into the hands of family insiders with no experience in such matters. At a moment when skillful diplomacy is desperately needed, we’re in danger of finding ourselves being forced to rely on military responses to threatening international events because our diplomatic resources have been so severely compromised.

Third, although we like to view anti-missile technology as purely defensive in nature, that’s not how it appears to our adversaries.

Here’s the problem. The nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union showed that there really isn’t a role for nuclear weapons in actual combat. Instead, their value is primarily as a deterrent against a nuclear attack by another nuclear power.

Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet speaks during the 73rd Anniversary Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration. 7 dec 2014.photograph Cory Lum

Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said a missile defense system should be installed in Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The doctrine of “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD, is the idea that neither side could contemplate a nuclear strike on the other because a devastating counter-attack would lead to certain annihilation. Both sides would be wiped out in a nuclear war.  And as long as we knew that, and they knew that, the world stayed away from the brink of nuclear war.

But a robust anti-missile defense system would be destabilizing because it would undermine a key part of the MAD doctrine. If one side could render a nuclear counter-attack ineffective via an anti-missile system, the country that deployed it would no longer have to fear that devastating second strike. So erecting such defenses can be seen, somewhat counterintuitively, as making nuclear war more likely.

And although the immediate threat today is from North Korea, what we do to counter it has immediately implications for other adversaries, including China and Russia. And their responses could, in the long run, prove more dangerous than the somewhat tenuous current threat of a Korean attack on Hawaii.

Yes, it’s very complicated, as President Trump has been finding out. Each policy has myriads of unintended consequences, and reliance on a missile defense system is no exception.

And, fourth, let’s be honest. If North Korea is targeting Hawaii, it probably isn’t because they’re threatened by our visitor industry. It’s because Hawaii has become home to both the command headquarters and military bases that are targeting North Korea. These military facilities make us targets.

So while island residents mostly relate to military facilities in terms of their economic impact on the state, the jobs they provide, we have to be mindful that they also draw us into the middle of any future military conflicts.

It’s a tradeoff that not everyone is happy with. The military’s extensive physical presence involves a loss of local control over and ability to protect public land and other natural resources.

Think of the parts of the state that most local people never visit because they are off limits to civilian visits. Mokapu. Makua Valley. Lualualei. Schofield. Or think of those leaking fuel tanks in Red Hill that pose a long-term threat to our primary water sources. There are certainly costs to the military’s large large footprint.

If North Korea is targeting Hawaii, it probably isn’t because they’re threatened by our visitor industry.

So what should the U.S. do?

I think the first step has to be to stop thinking primarily of military solutions. None of those are pretty.

Meanwhile, China has pointed to the need to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula by beginning to demilitarize. They have suggested a quid pro quo in which North Korea might drop their nuclear program in exchange for a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers, which they see as provocative and threatening.

Similar steps to defuse military tensions were backed last week by Women Cross DMZ, a coalition of women from 40 countries, including North and South Korea, who called for “an even-handed freeze on both North Korea’s nuclear program and the US/South Korea military exercises.”

But reflecting our over-reliance on military responses—the hammer-and-nail problem— Admiral Harris is doing just the opposite. During his congressional appearance last week, Harris said joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea, as well as deployments of American warships, along with B-1 and B-52 bombers, will “ameliorate Kim Jong Un’s worse impulses.”

It’s not hard to see that what Harris looks at as responses to North Korea are easily seen as threats in their own right, seeming to confirm Kim Jong Un’s worst fears.

In that context, pushing ahead with a missile defense system in Hawaii would be a costly mistake. It wouldn’t make us any safer, and it could make the world a more dangerous place by signaling that we aren’t interested in diffusing tensions between North and South Korea, and their neighbors, or by demilitarizing the region.

So let’s just say to Admiral Harris, “thanks, but no thanks.”

About the Author