Darrah takes command

MANA — The Pacific Missile Range Facility is a small speck on a national scale, but a massive player in the area of national security.

Resting on the western frontier of the United States, the 7-mile-long, half-mile-wide piece of government real estate on the western shore of Kaua’i is home to some of the most advanced systems testing and training for ballistic missile defense technology in the entire country.

“We are the preeminent test range for weapons defending our national security,” said the newly installed commanding officer, Capt. Mark Darrah. “Our role at PMRF is to provide (the missile systems) a test base.”

The base changed command yesterday with the retirement of Capt. Robert “Jeff” Connelly and the installment of Darrah as the new commanding officer. The ceremony took place in the PMRF air operations hangar in the morning.

PMRF is on the forefront of testing for the sea-based U.S. Navy Aegis Missile system and land-based U.S. Army Theater High Altitude Area Defense missile testing system. The base is one part of the multi-billion dollar Ballistic Missile Defense System created by the Missile Defense Agency under President Bush.

The seventh and eighth Aegis test launches occurred at PMRF Barking Sands last year while the first THAAD system test is scheduled for the end of this year, or early 2007.

“The systems are being developed to identify, track and intercept ballistic missiles,” said PMRF spokesperson Tom Clement.

Both Aegis tests last year were deemed successes as they intercepted the target missile some 90 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

Darrah says he is honored to take command of the base that is responsible for such activities carried out in the name of national defense. “Swiftly, deliberately and boldly we will open the throttles to ensure national security,” Darrah said at Monday’s change of command ceremony.

In today’s unstable world environment, missile defense technology has been pumped with funding from the current administration as a way to head off a future threat. “With different regimes seeking ballistic missile technology and the rise in nuclear proliferation, the work done here is extremely important,” said commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Gary Roughead, speaking at Darrah’s change of command ceremony.

Outgoing commander Connelly oversaw a four-fold increase in range activity at the base since he took over in early 2003. “We strengthened and developed these defenses,” Connelly said, while he worked to integrate base activity with the surrounding community.

The base is moving toward placing more emphasis on testing and less on training, said Clement. “The majority of training has been submarine related,” Clement said. “The testing and evaluation is what has increased.”

Connelly feels that the increased emphasis on testing will be a challenge for Darrah in the coming years. “I think what Mark will find as his biggest challenge will be preparing PMRF for the discovery of the range’s importance with the increased activity in testing and training,” Connelly said.

With test launches for the Army THAAD missile beginning as soon as December, officials expect an increase in manpower and importance placed on the base.

When asked what his first official action will be, though, Darrah responded, “Tell everyone that nothing has changed with the community. We have a very good foundation that forms a strong relationship to operate freely with the community. I want to continue to build upon that foundation and to see us grow.”

Connelly helped foster the community relationship by opening the base to Kauaians again after the initial security lock-down after the Sept. 11 attacks. Connelly feels the island community plays a vital role in the base’s activities.

Darrah agrees with that interpretation and says he is committed to working hand in hand with the surrounding community.

“Mark will be good at strengthening the relationship and closeness with residents and supporters and continuing to build their trust,” Connelly said.

The base population is composed of mostly civilians and outside contractors on any given day.

Clement says the base houses around 100 sailors, with around 130 regular civilians and 700 contractors coming to work on the base from day to day.

The base was a landing strip before World War II with as many as 6,000 Army troops based there.

It came into prominence during World War II and by the 1950s was known as Bonham Airfield under the command of the U.S. Air Force. By the early 1960s the Navy began using the airfield as well, but did not assume command until 1983.

Darrah, a combat veteran Navy flight officer, was most recently the deputy program manager for the Navy’s EA-18G electronic jamming aircraft.

Darrah comes to PMRF with his wife, Lisa, from his last assignment in Maryland. The couple have three grown children, Marcus, Aislinn and Robert.

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