LIHUE — The skies off the northwest coast of Kauai became testing grounds last week for an interceptor that can shoot down ballistic missiles as well as airplanes.
The U.S. military said Monday it successfully intercepted four targets during a series of flight tests from July 28 to Aug. 1.
The destroyer USS John Paul Jones tested the technology using a modified version of the SM-6 missile the Navy already uses, said Heather Uberuaga, a spokeswoman for military contractor Raytheon Missile Systems.
The existing version can shoot down airplanes, helicopters and cruise missiles. The newer model tested off Kauai may also destroy ballistic missiles in their last few seconds of flight.
“I was hearing some serious booms going off,” said Westside fisherman Greg Holtzman. “I saw a couple missile trails that had gone up into the sky.”
Despite the occasional racket, Holzman said the military has been cooperative with local fishermen and tour boat companies, notifying them about testing activities and restricting access to waters for reasonable time periods only when necessary.
“Down here on the Westside, we’re pretty used to hearing the occasional missile fire,” he said.
Raytheon says the updated missile is on course to be operational next year, offering the Navy the flexibility to meet a wide variety of missions.
It would join the Navy’s arsenal of missile-destroying interceptors. The Navy already has an interceptor, called SM-3, that ships can use to shoot down ballistic missiles midway through their flight.
The Navy could use the SM-6 to shoot down missiles that weren’t intercepted earlier.
The Navy has another interceptor, called SM-2 Block IV, that can also shoot down missiles in the last phase of flight. But it differs from the SM-6 in that its primary purpose is to defend airspace immediately surrounding ships while the SM-6 is designed to provide air defenses over the horizon.
During the first test event in the series, John Paul Jones sailors fired a modified SM-6 to destroy a short-range ballistic missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at 10:30 p.m. On July 31 and Aug. 1, the sailors tested the new interceptor against two different types of cruise missiles.
Some local environmentalists have long been concerned over some of the military’s testing activities off Kauai’s shores.
Last summer, a coalition of concerned Kauai organizations and individuals called Oceans 4 Peace hosted a series of public events in protest of Rim of the Pacific, the biennial international military war games that takes place in Hawaiian waters.
In addition to the military’s war prep activities, Gordon LaBedz of the Surfrider Foundation’s Kauai Chapter said missile launches like the ones that took place last week are also worrisome.
“It’s a little nerve racking,” LaBedz said. “I live in Kekaha and we hear these big explosions and then you see them go over the land and you think, ‘Oh my God, I hope they didn’t screw up.’ Remember this is a research facility. They are testing things they never tried before.”