A groundbreaking missile defense test is expected soon on Kauai that has ramifications for the defense of Hawaii from North Korean ballistic missiles.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is expected to fire a Raytheon SM-3 Block IIA, an enhanced-capability missile co-developed with Japan, from the Aegis Ashore test facility at the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
The missile is anticipated to target a mock intermediate- range ballistic missile, but the agency said in June that the SM-3 IIA “could add another layer of defense to Hawaii” for intercontinental-range North Korean missiles.
The government-owned 666-foot Pacific Tracker, which has long-range, high-data-rate telemetry processing systems, was docked next to Aloha Tower on Monday.
The Kauai test comes at a time of heightened awareness of North Korean capabilities following Saturday’s false-alarm ballistic missile warning.
“I am still a staunch believer that Hawaii is underdefended, and maybe what will be tested at Barking Sands is the answer to our problems and an answer to the many prayers that went up all over Hawaii on Jan. 13,” said state Rep. Gene Ward.
Ward sent a letter in July to Defense Secretary James Mattis asking him to consider “operationalizing” the Aegis Ashore facility on Kauai, which is used as a test site, for Hawaii’s defense.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, also maintains Hawaii is underdefended and has pushed for using Aegis Ashore in emergencies or giving the Pearl Harbor destroyer USS John Paul Jones, used as a missile defense test bed, added responsibility as a defense ship for Hawaii.
Missile maker Raytheon said the new SM-3 IIA, expected to be used at Aegis Ashore sites in Japan, Romania and Poland, is initially aimed at shooting down short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Intermediate-range missiles fly up to 3,400 miles, while intercontinental ballistic missiles are defined as having a greater range. Hawaii is 4,660 miles from North Korea.
U.S. Pacific Command and Navy officials recently said the Kauai Aegis Ashore site is not suited for a defense role because of the current SM-3 1B missile’s limited capabilities. Newer SM-3 IIA missiles have a wider body, fly much faster and have a range of 1,350 miles — more than triple that of the SM-3 1B.
At a June 7 congressional hearing, Vice Adm. James Syring, the now former director of the Missile Defense Agency, was asked about the defense of Hawaii and potential use of the SM-3 IIA — which comes from a line of ship-based missiles — against North Korean threats.
“We’ve done the analysis and looked at that extensively,” Syring said. There is “inherent capability to engage longer-range threats,” and while the missile hasn’t been tested in such a capacity, “analysis indicates that that could add another layer of defense to Hawaii,” he said.
Ellison noted that the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 requests that the agency test the SM-3 IIA against an ICBM target.
“The United States will very soon test the Aegis Ashore site in PMRF on shooting down missiles that will prove out its deployment to Poland this year,” Ellison said in an email. “It is unbelievable that those limited SM-3 Block IIA interceptors will be going to Poland instead of Hawaii.”
Forty-four ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California defend Hawaii and the mainland against North Korean missiles. However, Hawaii’s closer proximity means an enemy missile would arrive in just 20 minutes and limits what officials call a “shoot, look, shoot” second chance for success.
The ground-based system has a record of 10 intercepts in 18 attempts, or a 56 percent success rate.
“Against (ICBMs) the state of Hawaii is protected by the current ground-based defense system that we have in place. … So the protection for Hawaii is there,” George Kailiwai, director of the requirements and resources directorate at Pacific Command, said at a military conference last week.
A $1 billion medium-range discrimination radar is planned for Hawaii with activation in 2023. The possibility of adding interceptor missiles is “still under study,” Kailiwai said. “We’re looking at the sensor first and then the interceptors second,” he said.
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