January 13 will be three years since a day we remember very well. “Missile incoming. This is not a threat.” For the next 38 minutes, until the alert was called off, the prospect of nuclear destruction of our world here on Kaua‘i became real, a fact of life we carry with us.
Since then, the Pentagon’s Homeland Defense Agency (HDA) has ramped up promotion of a missile defense radar called Homeland Defense Radar- Hawai‘i (HDR- H) to detect high altitude Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) launched from North Korea. It is a 9 story tall monolith on 50 to 80 acres costing #2 Billion. Sites being studied are Kahuku Training Area on O‘ahu and Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Kaua‘i.
The project has met controversy. First funded in the 2019 Defense Authorization Act, then dropped in 2021 funding, it was reinstated at the behest of Senator Mazie Hirono who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The reason is that traditional nuclear deterrent strategy has been upended by the advent of emerging hypersonic missile technology. Hypersonics can achieve mach 5; able to travel halfway around the earth in less than an hour. Their low altitude capability and maneuverability make them undetectable by the HDR- H.
In December 2019, then Defense Secretary Esper ordered the MDA to postpone the MDH- A project, and ordered planners to study “a range of sensor options”, including a network of low orbit satellites equipped with sensors that could detect hypersonic missiles. In quick order, the MDA awarded $300 Million to build and deploy the first of these missile detection satellites in 2022. A full constellation of 150 satellites blanketing the planet is planned within the next 3 to 5 years.
The system is supposed to do what HDR- H can do- track ICBM’s from North Korea, plus track hypersonics. HDR- H deployment is announced to take three years to build. Why spend $2 Billion on a radar project that will be rendered obsolete by the satellite sensor system deployed at nearly the same time? And it should be noted that projects of this size, if allowed to get started, tend to take on a life of their own and become too big to fail. Honolulu’s rail project is a good example.
In addition, the ability to intercept and down enemy missiles is keeping pace. Now, the missiles we hope can defeat ICBMs incoming to Hawai‘i or the mainland are based in Alaska and California. The rapidly changing threat environment may contrive, if the HDR- H proceeds, to morph into an integrated detection-interceptor complex with state of the art interceptor systems like the Aegis Ashore being locked and loaded in Hawai‘i, weaponizing, for the first time, one of Hawai‘i’s islands. Hawai‘i would be made less safe and a more compelling target to adversary war planners.
There is another auspicious date this month. On January 22 the UN Treaty on the Prevention of Nuclear Weapons will go into force, making possessing a nuclear weapon illegal under international law. If our delegation is hearing their constituents, they have to know the urgent need to defend the American people from devastating threats inside the homeland brought on by the pandemic is quickly displacing foreign threats in the hierarchy of national security concerns. Our delegation needs to promote the use of diplomatic brain power to defuse the nuclear arms race and direct resources away from ill advised military adventures like the MDA- H and instead to the real security needs here at home.
Kip Goodwin is a resident of Wailua