The defense funding bill for next year puts a heavy emphasis on military operations in the Pacific amid growing tensions between the United States and China, calling for a review of U.S. missile defense systems and restoring funding for a new missile defense radar facility in Hawaii.

The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed by an overwhelming majority in the U.S. Senate on Friday, also included $301 million for construction projects on Hawaii bases, including two new child development centers for military families, a new aircraft maintenance hangar and wharf improvement projects.

The annual defense bill now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, where it faces an unusual challenge. Trump has threatened to veto it due to the inclusion of a provision that would create a commission to study renaming bases named for Confederate officials and the exclusion of a measure abolishing a law that protects social media companies from liability for posts by their users.

The 2021 defense spending bill, which passed the Senate on Friday, includes more than $300 million for construction projects in Hawaii. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

However, even staunch Trump allies in Congress pushed for a veto-proof majority.

Among the provisions was one authored by Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono to support military spouses pursuing professional licenses and associate degrees.

“While some families are long-term residents, others have just moved to our state, and military spouses may need financial assistance getting licenses, college credits, or other certifications,” she said Friday in a press release. “I will continue to advocate for federal programs that support our service members and their families in Hawaii and across the world.”

The spending bill allocated $97 million for two new child development centers for military families, $89 million for a new aircraft maintenance hangar to improve Wheeler Army Airfield’s historic but aging facilities and $115 million for two wharf improvement projects at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam.

It also included $65 million to continue the development and the location siting process for the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii.

The HDR-H is expected to cost $1.9 billion to complete and has had a tumultuous development process. The military has struggled to find a suitable location for the radar, scouting possible sites on Oahu’s North Shore and on Kauai. 

Last December, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper called for the radar to be postponed and commissioned a study of potential alternative missile sensors in the Pacific. In February, the Pentagon zeroed out funding for the project in its requested budget.

When Hirono grilled Esper about why he pulled the funding during congressional testimony in March he told lawmakers 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.”

In addition to restoring funding for the project, the bill calls for the Pentagon to conduct a study of America’s missile defense system, saying the military must analyze how “the cancellation, or indefinite postponement” of the HDR-H would impact defenses against “current and future missile threats to Hawaii.” 

North Korea also has made advances in developing long-range nuclear weapons, prompting worries in Hawaii that were underscored by the 2018 missile false alarm.

Officers from the People Liberation Army Navy fronting Chinese navy ship Xian at Pearl Harbor during a day open to media. The Xian is one of 3 ships participating in RIMPAC. 2016 july 8
Officers from the Chinese navy gathered at Pearl Harbor during RIMPAC 2016. Tensions with China are driving an increased military focus on Hawaii and the Pacific. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Activists have opposed the radar facility, arguing that its construction would needlessly threaten the environment and Hawaiian cultural sites. Some also have said the system itself is obsolete, can’t detect new hypersonic missiles and could soon be rendered redundant by space-based systems currently in development.

The Chinese military has invested heavily in hypersonic missiles weapons to bypass American missile defense systems. The funding bill also calls for $206.8 million for defenses against hypersonic missile threats, and invests millions in the creation of hypersonic weapons for the U.S. military’s own arsenal.

The $741 billion bill would create a “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” to establish a region-wide approach to countering Chinese military moves and authorized $2.2 billion for the first year of the program. It tasked the defense secretary and the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with submitting a strategy proposal to Congress.

INDOPACOM, which is headquartered at Camp Smith in Aiea, oversees the U.S. military’s operations across the Pacific Islands, Oceania, East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and the waterways that connect them. It’s the U.S. military’s largest theater of operations.

After years of war in the Middle East the Pentagon is shifting its sights to the Pacific, with the Hawaii-based Pacific Fleet stepping up operations in the South China Sea as Beijing butts heads with the United States and other countries across the region over maritime navigation rights for ships, as well as access to undersea oil resources and fisheries.

Shifting Strategies

The bill also called on the Navy to draft a report for Congress on the use of “fishing fleets by foreign governments as extensions of such countries’ official maritime security forces” to pursue military and political goals.

The provision was prompted by mounting concerns about the People’s Maritime Militia — a paramilitary force of military-trained fishermen that have conducted surveillance and staked out territory on behalf of the Chinese navy. Chinese officials have referred to their strategy in the Pacific as a “war without gunsmoke.”

Chinese-flagged fishing vessels also have been known to harass, stalk and sometimes attack ships from other countries

In October the White House announced that Coast Guard District 14 — which has its headquarters in Honolulu and oversees operations across the Pacific — would receive new vessels to step up operations against illegal fishing in U.S. territories and support other Pacific nations in their efforts.

U.S. and Indonesian troops train during a platoon exchange last month at the 25th Infantry Division’s Lightning Academy on Oahu. Kevin Knodell/Civil Beat

Other Hawaii-related measures in the bill include:

— A requirement for the military to provide a report on “joint training range exercises for the Pacific region,” including training grounds in Hawaii, examining how they can be used to train with new weapons systems as well as how the military can more closely integrate troops from allied countries into exercises.

— The creation of a new multi-national “Movement Coordination Center Pacific” that would coordinate the movement of friendly nations’ military aircraft and vessels across the region.

— A call for Navy officials to address community safety concerns at Red Hill, the massive underground fuel storage facility in Hawaii, and to review available technologies at least once every five years to prevent potential fuel leaks.

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