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WASHINGTON — At the request of Congress, the federal Missile Defense Agency is evaluating the threat to Hawaii from ballistic missiles and possible defenses against them.
The little-noticed provision raising questions about Hawaii’s vulnerability was tucked into the massive $607 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 23. The report will be presented to the Senate and House armed services committees when it is completed.
The provision, Section 1685 of Senate Bill 2943, asks about the costs and benefits of turning the Aegis Ashore Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai into an “operational” weapons intercept site, or a project that may include fielding a medium range ballistic missile sensor “for the defense of Hawaii.”
The provision in the defense bill also calls for creating an updated environmental impact statement, if seen as necessary, that would permit work to proceed quickly.
The report has not yet been completed, according to Chris Johnson, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.
“The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai was designed and built as a test asset and was not intended to be an operational facility,” Johnson wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “While the Department of Defense has no plans to make the AAMDTC an operational facility, we are continually reviewing the feasibility of using current and future ballistic missile defense capabilities to address a range of ballistic missile threats, including North Korean ICBMs.”
The idea of changing the purpose of the Kauai facility has been controversial. Many people are opposed to increasing the military’s footprint in the state. Others fear Hawaii becoming a military target to enemies because of military expansionism on the mainland.
And some believe that the United States has no right to control Hawaii because the overthrow of the kingdom was, in their opinion, illegal.
Some danger to the islands could be unavoidable.
“People think of Hawaii as an isolated paradise but it could be targeted by an adversary wanting to neutralize the U.S. military in the Pacific,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu and author of a recent journal article, “Preparing for a North Korean Nuclear Missile.”
North Korea’s technical capabilities are growing, and if it fired an missile armed with a nuclear warhead and managed to hit the islands, the results could be dire, Roy said.
“Nuclear would wipe out all life on Oahu,” said Roy. “It would be Hiroshima times 10.”
Roy cautioned, however, that the United States needs to be careful not to overreact to North Korean provocation, which may represent little more than bravado. After all, he said, the resulting U.S. retaliation would destroy North Korea.
There is no immediate cause for alarm, other military experts told Civil Beat.
The Missile Defense Agency’s Johnson said Hawaii is adequately protected from North Korean ICBMs by the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System. He said the system includes 36 ground-based interceptors — and will expand to 44 by the end of 2017 — located in California and Alaska. It also includes sensors on land, sea and in space.
“North Korea has not yet tested any operational missile with the range to hit Hawaii,” said Kingston Rief, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, a national organization promoting arms control policies.
“With each test it is making progress toward fielding a long-range ballistic missile but they are still five to 10 years away from making it operational, according to my understanding,” Rief said.
He said members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation would need to decide whether they would encourage turning the Kauai test facility into an operational site that plays a part in the nation’s missile defense strategy.
“It’s a good question for Hawaii’s lawmakers,” Rief said.
Congressional delegation members did not respond to requests for comment from Civil Beat, but are well positioned to influence such a decision. Sen. Mazie Hirono serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, while U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa serve on the House Armed Services Committee.
On the floor of the Senate a year ago, Sen. Brian Schatz urged the military to “explore new opportunities to strengthen our ballistic missile defense, including increasing the protection of our forces in Hawaii and the Western Pacific by turning the Aegis Ashore Test Complex on Kauai into an operational site,” according to the Congressional Record.
At that time, Schatz said that Reps Gabbard and Mark Takai were “working on” the proposal with the Department of Defense. (Takai died in July of cancer, and was replaced by Hanabusa.)
Schatz discussed making the Kauai facility into an operational site in the context of trying to curtail North Korean belligerence. He said North Korea’s technological capabilities were increasing and it was becoming more provocative.
In the face of requests from China that North Korea stop its missile launch program, the East Asian country instead launched a missile on the eve of the important Lunar New Year celebrations in China, according to Schatz.
On Feb. 11, the North Koreans launched another missile, this one 310 miles into the Sea of Japan, where it landed in international waters. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe learned of the launch as they ate dinner after a golf outing in Palm Beach at Trump’s resort estate.
The two men quickly issued a joint press statement, which was delivered as a news broadcast and also as a video message from Trump’s twitter account. Abe called the missile launch “intolerable” and Trump said that the United States stood “100 percent” behind “Japan, its great ally.”
Two days later, the Pentagon issued a formal condemnation of the missile launch.
The next day, there was another odd development, when the half-brother of North Korea’s brutal and secretive dictator suddenly died, allegedly poisoned at an airport in Malaysia. Kim Jong Nam, was once seen as heir to the family dynasty, according to some reports. But it was instead his half-brother, Kim Jong Un, who took control of the country about five years ago.
Kim Jong Un is the driving force between North Korea’s efforts to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting targets in Japan, South Korea or the United States.
The population of North Korea is starving, but the missile launch in 2016 cost about $1 billion, enough money to feed the people of the country for a year, Schatz said in his congressional testimony last year.