Recent events on the Korean Peninsula have highlighted both the instability of the North Korean regime and the potential vulnerability of the United States to future possible intercontinental ballistic missile attacks. The chief of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, indicated in testimony before the House of Representatives that he would welcome additional ballistic missile defense radars and missiles in Hawaii to prevent an attack by the North Koreans.
While North Korea has not yet demonstrated the capability to marry a nuclear device to an ICBM, they have repeatedly expressed the desire to do so, and have devoted significant resources to making this capability a reality. When they do, U.S. facilities and forces stationed in Korea, Japan, Guam, and Hawaii would be immediately vulnerable to the threat of an attack. The North Koreans have increased the pace of their missile testing, with two successful launches within the past few weeks, including liquid- and solid-fueled missiles.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system is currently being deployed to South Korea, and a similar system is located on Guam. U.S. forces in Japan are shielded by U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers with ballistic missile defense capabilities. This leaves Hawaii — which hosts a major naval base, the 25th Infantry Division, and the headquarters of both PACOM and Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet — as a key strategic target that is increasingly vulnerable to a North Korean attack. Deployment of a THAAD system to Hawaii could provide the protection required.
Another possible alternative would be to "operationalize" the Aegis Ashore site located at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, or PMRF, on Kauai. The Aegis Ashore site has demonstrated the capability to detect, track and destroy medium-range ballistic missiles, and it is the prototype for similar systems that are being installed in Romania and Poland. These tests involved using the existing radars at PMRF and missiles from U.S. Navy ships based at Pearl Harbor.
Exactly what would be required to operationalize the Aegis Ashore site? At a minimum, it would require conversion of the Aegis Ashore site to around-the-clock operations, probable construction of additional office and administrative spaces, an increase in assigned personnel to support operations, and provision of the SM-3 missiles, either through construction of a missile site in Hawaii, or use of the ballistic missile defense-capable U.S. Navy ships.
Congress has already directed the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide a report that contains "an evaluation of the ballistic and air threat to Hawaii; the efficacy (including with respect to cost and potential alternatives) of making the Aegis Ashore site at PMRF operational; deploying the preferred alternative for fielding a medium range ballistic missile defense sensor for the defense of Hawaii."
Congress, the Department of Defense and the Navy all acknowledge that a gap exists in the defense of the Hawaiian Islands and that the threat from North Korea is growing rapidly. The fastest and most immediate way to provide for the defense of Hawaii is to operationalize the Aegis Ashore site located at PMRF on Kauai. Considering recent events on the Korean Peninsula and the testimony of Harris, the Hawaiian congressional delegation should push the DoD to provide information on the operationalization of Kauai as soon as possible, with an eye toward immediately working to bring the Aegis Ashore site online.
J. J. Coyne is a retired Navy captain who served two tours in Hawaii and commanded a Navy helicopter squadron.