National Security & Defense

Our Missile-Defense Policy Should be ‘America First’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes a Hwasong-12 long-range ballistic missile (Photo: KCNA/via Reuters)
The U.S. provides anti-missile shields to Europe. Let’s redirect some of those resources to protect the homeland.

Ideal year-round temperatures, lush tropical foliage, and scenic beaches belie the strategic significance of Hawaii’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, which cuts across 2,385 acres of coastline in Kauai County.

The U.S. Naval base is said to be the “only range in the world where submarines, surface ships, aircraft and space vehicles can operate and be tracked simultaneously.” Whale watchers and other tourists who set sail in nearby waterways are largely unaware of the advanced military testing that takes place at the facility.

But with the 50th state now within range of North Korea’s accelerating missile technology, the arguments in favor of activating rather than just testing defensive systems are gaining currency among elected officials and top military brass.

Just a few months ago, seismic sensors determined that the Communist regime’s latest round of underground nuclear tests produced an explosion equivalent to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un appears poised to set off another nuclear-weapons test, which would be the sixth such test since 2006. Moreover, it’s become evident that the North Korean dictator continues to sharpen and hone missile technology that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads to intended targets.

Despite the widely publicized “failed launch” of a ballistic missile that exploded over land in North Korea in April, Hawaii is in within range of Jong-un’s ever-expanding arsenal. So are South Korea, Japan, Guam, Okinawa, and parts of Alaska. What the media dismissed as a failure, savvy U.S. defense planners correctly view as an audacious step in the direction of missile technology that will ultimately threaten U.S. lives and assets. Since he first came to power in December 2011, Jong-un has tested more missiles than were tested in the 30 preceding years. On Sunday, he launched North Korea’s most advanced weapon yet in the form of a mid- to long-range missile that improved on the performance of previous tests.

“They can certainly hit the Aleutian Islands,” warns Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Alexandria, Va. “We don’t know if they can put nuclear warheads on their missiles, and we would think that they would want more reliability on these missiles before they would put nukes on them. The North Koreans also have to test the reentry on the warheads. But they can reach Alaska.”

Even so, Ellison said, the ground-based anti-missile interceptors deployed at Fort Greely in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California “have been tested and proven,” to the point where they provide a sufficient defense against an attack from rogue states against the American mainland, “at least for the time being.”

Thankfully, the U.S. is equipped with a unique ground-based missile-defense system, designed by Boeing, that can strike enemy missiles in the outer atmosphere before any nuclear fallout could reach the U.S. mainland.

But Ellison, who is a former NFL linebacker turned missile-defense advocate, is less confident about Hawaii’s current defense posture, which, he says, would greatly benefit from an added layer of protection that is easily feasible.

This is where an “America first” approach to missile defense comes into play. The $450 million Aegis Ashore launcher located at the Pacific Missile Range Facility could be equipped with ground-based interceptors almost instantly to blunt North Korea’s offensive capabilities. So why isn’t it? The Aegis Ashore network uses radars and missiles to test defensive networks that have been installed in Romania and will soon be installed in Poland. Since the already beleaguered American taxpayer is footing the bill for anti-missile shields in Europe, is there any reason why some of these same resources can’t be redirected to protect U.S. territory?

Think about what’s going down.

Missile interceptors that have been built, tested, and perfected in Hawaii are being shipped off to Europe when at least some of them could stay put in Hawaii to bolster the security needs of the same Americans who are covering the cost of those missiles. Dangling out there somewhere is a Donald Trump “America first” line that perfectly captures the irony of Hawaii’s strategic position.

America will be better positioned over the long term to help defend allied nations from ballistic missiles if the Trump administration moves to add multiple layers of defense.

Ellison estimates that it would take only one or two days at the most to make Hawaii’s Aegis Ashore combat-ready. Crew members stationed on the U.S. East Coast who are trained to operate Aegis facilities in Europe could be flown into Hawaii in the event of an emergency, while ground-based interceptors could be put into position to provide the U.S. with the ability to fire multiple shots at incoming missiles, he explained.

Ideally, it would be best to activate the Aegis system now rather than waiting until the hour of maximum danger. While the missile-defense systems in Alaska and California could shield Hawaii in a pinch, there are limits and potential pitfalls associated with assets that were designed for another purpose.

“Those ground-based interceptors have to make a very difficult long shoot out of architecture that was not designed for Hawaii, but was designed for look-and-shoot capabilities over the North Pole coming into the continental United States,” Ellison said. “The flight to Hawaii does not enable the sensors that we have permanently based in Alaska. So instead we must rely on a one-shot opportunity, because of the physics involved. The interceptor has to cross over about 3,000 or even 4,000 miles, and it’s got to get in front of the missile, so there is no chance of doing a second shot. You can’t look, assess, and shoot again. The other problem is that we only have a limited amount of interceptors, and we have to ask ourselves how many we are going to enable to protect the 1.4 million or so people in Hawaii rather than protecting the continental United States. These are hard questions. That’s the dilemma of Hawaii, and that’s why I favor activating the Aegis system in Kauai. Right now, Hawaii is less protected than the other 49 states and even Guam, Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea.”

There’s only one test left in Hawaii for the missile-defense system that will deployed in Poland next year. So, it would seem it’s high time to make the most of the technology that’s already available.

“We don’t need to rush toward a solution in Hawaii, but the fact is we have capabilities that can be turned on and made fully operational in an emergency,” Ellison said. “We have the crews, we have the missiles, and we have the radar.”

American technology can find a way out from under the threat of a nuclear-missile strike just as Ronald Reagan envisioned more than 30 years ago. But before existing capabilities can be matched up against growing and emerging security risks, the Trump administration must pivot in the direction of an America-first missile-defense policy that makes smart use of unexploited and insufficiently funded resources.

For starters, the president who ran his campaign on a message of “America first” ought to double down on funding the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which atrophied during the Obama years. The MDA’s budget declined from $11 billion in 2007 to $8.4 billion in 2006. That’s a drop of more than 25 percent, which has hit hard the testing and deployment of ground-based interceptors. A 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that, without substantial improvement, the current ground-based missile defense system will be able to outpace the threat only “for the next decade or so.”

An America-first missile-defense policy does not mean shortchanging allies in Europe and Asia who are threatened by rogue states. But it does mean that U.S. policymakers need to make more-efficient use of limited anti-missile resources to plug lacunas now vulnerable to North Korea and others that might attack U.S. territory. America will be better positioned over the long term to help defend allied nations from ballistic missiles if the Trump administration moves decisively to add multiple layers of defense, as Ellison, and others, have suggested.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in April, Admiral Harry Harris, Navy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, warned against the possibility of being put into a position where the military might have to make a choice between taking out missiles fired against the population in Hawaii and missiles fired against the American mainland. Ellison, the NFL linebacker, made this same point when he briefed the Hawaii state legislature just a few days ago. In true football fashion, he favors a “multi-layered” approach to missile defense, arguing for components that operate on land, sea, and air and eventually outer space.

Even South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, who ran on a “sunshine policy” of engagement with the regime in Pyongyang, cannot escape the need to keep pace with the offensive capabilities of his counterparts in the north. He now appears inclined to maintain the THAAD (terminal high-altitude area defense) anti-missile system that the U.S. recently deployed in his country. Despite popular outcry within South Korea and protests from China’s government, the offensive weaponry north of the 38th parallel is an inescapable reality.

The whale watchers who remain blithely unaware of the missile range located near their vacation spots in Kauai County probably shouldn’t be expected to know that technically a state of war still exists between the U.S. and North Korea. But if they read up on Ellison’s statements in the local press, they would learn that it takes about only 20 minutes for a missile to reach them from North Korea.


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