The Missile Defense Agency is soliciting public comments through April 12 on the $1.9 billion missile radar system in Hawaii after narrowing down the possible locations to the Army’s Kahuku Training Area on Oahu or the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

Last year the Pentagon attempted to defund the Homeland Defense Radar — Hawaii citing difficulty finding a viable location and an interest in looking at alternative sensor systemsHawaii’s congressional delegation fought to restore funding to the project, with Sen. Mazie Hirono calling it her “top priority” in Congress’s annual defense funding bill.

But with local opposition mounting to construction on the North Shore, Hawaii’s freshman congressman Rep. Kai Kahele has thrown his support behind the Kauai site.

An artist rendering of the proposed $1.9 billion Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii. Missile Defense Agency

He told residents during a January meeting of the North Shore Neighborhood Board that he agrees the system has no place on Oahu.

“The ballistic missile defense of Hawaii and our nation must be a top priority,” Kahele told Civil Beat later in an emailed statement. “However after extensive conversations with the North Shore and Kahuku community, I oppose the placement of the Homeland Defense Radar on the island of Oahu.”

“The most suitable and logical location for the Homeland Defense Radar is on Kauai at the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands,” he added.

The Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin the contract for the project in 2018 after a false missile alert scare during heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Proposed development on the North Shore has frequently led to stiff opposition from local residents, most recently in a bitter battle over wind farms. Late last year, several local civic organizations formed the Koolau Waialua Alliance specifically to oppose placing the missile defense system at Kahuku.

“We learned from our wind turbine struggle that we needed to work together with the different groups within our community that have similar interests,” said Tevita Ka’ili, a spokesman for the Koolau Waialua Alliance and a former president of the Kahuku Community Association.

The military scouted several locations along the North Shore, including Kaena Point. That location was scrapped both because of potential logistical difficulties and cost overruns. It was also home to endangered species and several ancient Hawaiian cultural sites. 

North Shore opponents argue the same issues persist at Kahuku, raising concerns that construction and the traffic it brings will disrupt life in surrounding communities.

“We’ve known from previous archaeological assessments of the area that there are a lot of undocumented historical and cultural sites there,” argued Ka’ili, who teaches cultural anthropology at Brigham Young University Hawaii.

While less formally organized than the opposition on Oahu, the project also has opponents and skeptics on Kauai. The military faces regular criticism for its environmental impact in Hawaii, including over unexploded ordnance left on the island of Kahoolawe, a former Navy bombing range, and environmental damage at Red Hill on Oahu.

This month, Indo-Pacific Command’s outgoing commander Adm. Phil Davidson presented a $27 billion wish list to Congress, including continued funding for the radar.

“Here in Hawaii, the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii represents the solution for the gap in our ability to detect, track, discriminate, and defeat ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missile threats,” Davidson said in a March 1 speech during a defense conference in Honolulu.

But opponents point to the Pentagon’s own misgivings about its value. Critics have argued that the project is already outdated and would not be able to detect the latest Chinese hypersonic missiles. Others note that it will take years to build and that space-based alternatives could become available before it’s even complete.

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele opposes building the HDR-H on Oahu, but supports building it on Kauai. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2020

The MDA has acknowledged the HDR-H won’t detect hypersonic missiles. But while the HDR-H might not detect the latest generation of high-tech weapons, some analysts assert it could still detect launches from North Korea’s less sophisticated — but still potentially powerful — nuclear arsenal.

North Korea developed nuclear weapons over the objections of its allies in China, causing concerns in both Washington and Beijing. Though Davidson considers China to be the most powerful potential adversary to U.S. forces in the region, he has noted that he considered North Korea the most urgent.

In October the North Korean military unveiled a new ballistic missile that analysts believe may be one of the world’s largest. In January it unveiled new submarine launched missiles“Until the nuclear situation is resolved on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will remain our most immediate threat,” Davidson told Congress this month.

Joe Wilson, an organizer of the Koolau Waialua Alliance, said he’s not naive about international politics. “It’s not to say we don’t believe that there’s a role for the military and that there are sometimes these larger questions of defense,” he said. 

“But we are against the idea of how these things happen, where they’re placed, what the potential threats are and how actually necessary it is,” Wilson added. “What seems to be the motivating force is those who see this as an economic development strategy from Hawaii. And that’s just not right.”

This year the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism recommended standing up a new “defense sector alliance” in hopes of using Pentagon spending to grow the islands’ technology and engineering workforce.

The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii’s Military Affairs Council has insisted that the HDR-H will create jobs for local companies through subcontracts during its construction and would employ a wide range of tech and engineering workers when it becomes operational.

While tourism dollars declined sharply during the pandemic, defense spending remained steady. But others have different visions for Hawaii’s economy.

“People have come up with new ways to be really thinking about other areas, such as agriculture and so forth, that would be more sustainable and also provide food security,” said Ka’ili. “I think that it’s important for us to invest in something that will be much more long term better for the environment than something like militarism.”

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