When the Pentagon announced in February that it was defunding the $1.9 billion Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii, local activists celebrated it as a victory. But in June, the Senate Armed Services Committee added a full funding provision as it made its markup for the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
James Rodrigues, a local activist with the group Malama Makua, said he felt blindsided when he learned the radar’s funding had been restored. He accused Hawaii’s congressional delegation of resurrecting a dead project.
“We participated in the community meetings, submitted testimony and stopped the radar,” he said.
The Pentagon zeroed out funding after challenges finding a location led to significant delays and cost increases and drafted a report to look at alternative options. Critics have argued the project would harm the environment and cultural sites — and might not even effectively protect Hawaii from modern missile threats.
But while the project has come up against fierce opposition from local activists, it also has strong supporters. As tourism dwindles amid the pandemic, the state is desperately looking for ways to put people to work. Both the construction and operation of the radar offer lucrative opportunities for local contractors.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, who called the radar her “top priority in the NDAA this year,” said that while the Trump administration had cut funds for the radar, the project never stopped “as far as the people who actually pay attention to missile defense” were concerned.
Hirono said that the 2018 missile false alarm in Hawaii underscored how exposed many residents feel when it comes to missile threats.
That missile scare happened during a time of heightened tension between the United States and North Korea as President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sparred on Twitter over nuclear weapons. Trump has since met with Kim and lavished praise on the leader, but tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high.
The Missile Defense Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a contract for $585 million in December 2018 to develop, build and deliver the radar with work being done in New Jersey and Hawaii. But the facility itself is going to be considerably more expensive. In 2019, the estimated cost was about $1 billion. Officials are now referring to it as a $1.9 billion project.
Agency spokeswoman Heather Cavaliere said the price increased during the siting process as planners evaluated the likely challenges of building the radar over rugged terrain, as well as the logistics of moving supplies and contractors.
The MDA conducted an initial siting study that evaluated 46 sites on Oahu and Kauai. The agency settled on three sites along Oahu’s North Shore for inclusion in the environmental impact statement process. Two were at the Army’s Kahuku training area, but one was struck from the list due to likely logistical problems and high costs.
The third was the Kuaokala Ridge near the U.S. Air Force Kaena Point Satellite Tracking Station. Rodrigues said that he and fellow activists did a tour of the site and found a heiau, a traditional Hawaiian temple.
Rodrigues also noted that the nearby Makua Valley is home to over 40 endangered species. More than 80% of the endangered species on Oahu can be found on land controlled by the military.
In October, the MDA began revisiting the possibility of placing the radar at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai’s west side. But in December, Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered the MDA to postpone the program.
He directed planners to conduct a study of a range of sensor options, including the HDR-H, that could be placed around the Pacific for missile detection. Cavaliere said the final version of that report was delivered to Esper in May.
When Hirono grilled Esper about funding during congressional testimony in March he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that defunding the project didn’t necessarily mean it was canceled, but that “if I develop a system and can’t put it somewhere, it has no effect. It’s wasted money.”
“The whole missile defense saga has been a long, drawn-out and expensive one,” said Dan Grazier, a veteran and military researcher at the Project on Government Oversight. “Any of these programs should warrant scrutiny.”
Hirono said that U.S. technology has to evolve in response to North Korea’s pursuits. She said that country is “quite single-minded about their pursuit of long range missiles and their technology I’m sure is evolving.”
And then there’s China, which has increasingly clashed with the U.S. and its neighbors in the South China Sea. China has worked to develop new hypersonic missiles designed to go through American missile defense systems as it seeks to widen its influence in the Pacific.
“We don’t get to choose the threats we face,” said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “All those threats are not distant — they’re real and very possible.”
But those opposed to the radar argue that these new technologies make the HDR-H obsolete before it’s even built, and that the military is already looking to space-based missile sensor systems that would quickly replace it.
The military readily admits that the radar won’t be able to detect the latest hypersonic missiles.
“As a matter of U.S. policy, our homeland missile defenses are not designed to defeat the large and sophisticated Russian and Chinese strategic missile arsenals,” Cavaliere said, but added that the HDR-H fits into a broader defense system.
While space likely is the future, Karako said, the present missile defense system has limitations.
“It’s all about the problem you’re trying to solve,” he said of the utility of the Hawaii radar. “If that problem is stopping a North Korean ICBM, then that’s what it’s for.”
Karako noted North Korea’s missiles aren’t believed to have hypersonic capabilities like the latest Chinese and Russian models — at least not yet — and that the HDR-H should be perfectly capable of detecting them and “fills the gap” until new space systems are ready.
Evaluating the value of the radar comes down to weighing “resources, time and risk,” he said. Space-based systems are likely still three to five years out, he added, but the Pentagon doesn’t seem to believe the HDR-H itself will be completed for at least three years either.
Rodrigues argued that essentially means the military would be building a radar that would quickly become redundant on lands that Native Hawaiians hold as sacred. “We’re so militarized here on Oahu we take for granted all we’ve lost,” he said.
Lockheed will likely subcontract a significant portion of the $1.9 billion to local companies for excavation, construction, electrical work, plumbing, site security and other tasks.
“That’s a lot of money, a lot of jobs,” said Jason Chung, vice president of the Hawaii Military Affairs Council. “Then there is the manning, service and maintenance component, which goes beyond the $1.9 billion build cost.”
Chung said that would mean long term jobs for cybersecurity specialists, engineers and others. “The defense industry is helping Hawaii to grow jobs in the STEM field,” he said, adding that “can offer high-paying jobs and the opportunity to remain home in the islands.”
Some local activists have pledged to disrupt construction of the project and said they’re willing to get arrested. Hirono said that she understands that there continues to be local opposition but insists critics will get the chance to speak.
“There will be public input, and there will be a process that will be followed,” she said. “But I certainly wanted to keep this on track.”
Grazier said that when Congress pays for projects in increments as they are being built and developed — a process called “concurrency” — it can turn them into projects that become “too big to fail” after money has already been spent.
Grazier said he is skeptical of military programs that are touted for their economic value and require constant upgrades. “Those are red flags that I look for,” he said.
Hirono said defense dollars play a large role in Hawaii’s economy, but bristles at the idea that the HDR-H is for anything other than keeping Hawaii safe. As geopolitical tensions escalate across the Pacific, Hirono said Hawaii needs the radar.
“I think we need space sensors, but I think we also need sensors that are closer to Earth,” Hirono said. “So it’s not one or the other.”
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