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Hawaii Needs Better Missile Defense Radars, Pacific Commander Says

Adm. Harry Harris says current capability is up to current threats — but that could change.

After a month of increasing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris arrived in Washington this week advocating for a number of increased capabilities — among them, improved missile defense for Hawaii.

The first focus should be improving the state’s radar system, Harris said. Then, the U.S. should consider adding interceptors to the islands that could help defend it if Kim Jong-un’s regime were to develop the ability to follow through on its threats to attack the U.S.

“I have suggested that we consider putting interceptors in Hawaii that defend Hawaii directly and that we look at the defensive Hawaii radar to improve Hawaii's capability,” the admiral told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. “That's something we need to study much more deeply, but I think it certainly merits further discussion.”

Currently, the U.S. has interceptors in two locations — Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The detection of missiles heading toward Hawaii or the surrounding Pacific would be handled by the floating Sea-Based X-band Radar.

“I believe that our ballistic missile architecture is sufficient to protect Hawaii today, but it can be overwhelmed,” Harris said. “And if Kim Jong-un or someone else launched ICBMs against the U.S., then someone would have to make a decision about which ones to take out or not.”

Harris’s recommendation comes in the wake of fraught speculation about Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, and conflict between that regime and the U.S. At the start of the month, North Korea conducted another missile test — one of 60 such events in recent years, Harris said Wednesday. That kicked off a month of inflammatory rhetoric, which coincided with a bungled public response from the U.S., a North Korean military parade honoring an important national anniversary, and even “unusually blunt” comments from China on the escalating tensions.

It’s not just Washington or PACOM that’s paying attention to this spate of hostility. It’s resonating at the local level in the islands, too. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, focused the bulk of her questions for Harris on the defense of the U.S.’s southernmost state.

“As I travelled across Hawaii for my recent state-wide town hall tour, I heard from my constituents on every island their concern about the threat posed by North Korea’s increased nuclear and ballistic missile activity and capabilities that place Hawaii squarely within North Korea's crosshairs,” she said later Wednesday.

And state lawmakers in Hawaii formally asked the Defense Department to help update its nuclear-disaster-preparedness plans, many of which were last looked at in 1985.

But this latest batch of tensions is just one warning sign on a long road of threats that means the U.S. needs to “put our foot on the accelerator on missile defense,” said Committee Chair Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Indeed, the military was already looking into expanding the missile defense architecture based in Hawaii. The Missile Defense Agency is reviewing several land-based radar alternatives, said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Something has to be done. That’s why the Missile Defense Agency is already planning on a path forward,” Karako said.

Ideally, he said, space-based missile detection is “where we need to go.” But there are two principal options for ground-based protection in Hawaii. One is to build a single-faced, Medium Range Discrimination Radar, whose detection range would be long enough “to allow the interceptors to get there, probably from Vandenburg or Fort Greely,” Karako said. The other is to equip the existing Aegis Ashore test range in Hawaii with alternate high-frequency radars and interceptors of its own, possibly the Standard Missile IIA.

But any decisions about that will likely be a long time coming. In his January executive order directing the Pentagon to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review, President Donald Trump also asked for a missile defense review. That review will be the basis for any expanded capability, in Hawaii or elsewhere.

“Any future missile defense architecture efforts or studies will be part of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review,” said Chris Johnson, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.