After years of arguing in favor of a nearly $2 billion missile defense radar – first on Oahu, then on Kauai – Hawaii’s congressional delegation is backing away from the project. 

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono was a longtime advocate for the proposed Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii, which would identify and classify missile threats to the islands. Hirono, who previously called it her “top priority,” twice pushed to restore funding for it that the Pentagon had removed from its budget. 

However, Hirono’s office said she has changed her position.

In recent months, she met with leaders from the Department of Defense, the Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, who “for the first time, have jointly concluded that a more comprehensive next-generation system is necessary” to protect the state, her office said Wednesday in a statement.

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks to media at the NEX food court after a tour of the Red Hill fuel facility. The tour was closed to the media.
Sen. Mazie Hirono was a major proponent of the Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii, but not anymore. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Senator Hirono agrees and will focus on the resources, technology, and investment necessary to keep Hawaii safe and will provide vigorous oversight to ensure the military meets its obligation to protect Hawaii,” her office said. 

On Wednesday, Sen. Brain Schatz said in a statement he too would no longer be supporting the radar system. 

“Based on new and ongoing assessments, there seem to be better, more effective ways to protect Hawaii from missile attacks without this program,” he said.

It was a major reversal. As recently as last year, the senators announced that they had jointly secured $75 million for development and $19 million in planning and design funding for the project, which critics had warned might be obsolete by the time it was built. 

When completed, the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii will optimize (the Missile Defense Agency’s) ability to detect, track, discriminate, and intercept missile threats, making it increasingly difficult for North Korea and other states to credibly threaten Hawai‘i and the U.S. mainland,” Schatz’s office said in March. 

Lockheed Martin already signed a $586 million contract to build the facility in 2018. 

The $1.9 billion Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii was going to be built on Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands. Missile Defense Agency

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele – who last year said the radar should be built on Kauai, in his district, instead of Oahu – has also backed away from the project.

“After numerous meetings with stakeholders, community members, multiple site visits to (the Pacific Missile Range Facility) and in-depth discussions with the Missile Defense Agency, Rep. Kahele has decided not to include HDR-H in his appropriations and (National Defense Authorization Act) requests this year,” his office said in a statement.

“This means that he is no longer advocating for an HDR-H congressional add to the Fiscal Year 2023 defense budget and has withdrawn his support for this proposed project.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who represents urban Honolulu and also has expressed support for the radar in the past, is in alignment with his congressional colleagues.

“The Department of Defense is reassessing how best to protect Hawaii from missile attack and pending that reassessment has not supported continuing HDR-H as is in the proposed FY23 budget,” he said in a statement. “I am suspending my support for HDR-H while the DoD works through its review, while supporting a full and timely review to assure Hawaii’s defense.”

The U.S. Pacific Command and the Missile Defense Agency also did not respond to a request for comment.

The project has been the subject of frequent debate at the Pentagon, which at one point zeroed out funding for it amid concerns about its strategic value and challenges in finding a location.

The withdrawal of congressional support for the project is welcome news to residents who opposed it, according to Laurel Brier, a member of the Kauai Climate Action Coalition..

“This was a big one, and it is a relief for now,” she said. 

The community pushed back on the development of the radar system for a variety of reasons. For one, Brier said the project would be a “huge monstrosity” in a rural area with a single main road and a vulnerable ecosystem. 

There were also concerns about whether the island’s electrical grid could handle such a large project, and whether the project would take up recreation areas for the public. 

Brier’s impression is that Hawaii’s senators have tried to take the project off life support in the name of jobs and development, but there have been criticisms that the jobs it would create would be for people from Oahu or the mainland who would put further strain on Kauai’s already limited housing availability.

There was no communication with the community that would be hosting it, which I guess is business as usual,” Brier said. 

If the radar were built at Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, there would also be construction impacts, said Michael “Kip” Goodwin, an executive committee member of the Sierra Club’s Kauai chapter.

“It’s going to disrupt commerce and everyday life in that part of the island for years, six years it’ll take to build the thing,” he said. “It’s just not suitable for our island.” 

The military already started the process of conducting an environmental impact statement, but the report hasn’t been released yet. 

“We’d really like to know if that process is going forward or if it’s dead,” Goodwin said. 

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