The head of the U.S. Pacific Command told Congress on Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “is clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today,” adding that a defensive radar for the islands is being planned and that installing intercontinental ballistic missile interceptors here is being discussed.
“I think that the defense-of-Hawaii radar is coming. I think the interceptors piece is something that is yet to be determined. But I believe we should certainly look at it,” Adm. Harry Harris said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., to discuss security challenges in the region.
Harris made some of the comments in response to questions from U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who said she just returned to Washington after holding a series of town hall meetings across the state.
The North Korean ICBM threat to Hawaii “was a constant question and theme that came up,” Gabbard said, asking Harris to characterize the threat level.
“I am concerned about it,” Harris said. “I believe that our ballistic missile (defense) architecture is sufficient to protect Hawaii today. But it can be overwhelmed.”
Hawaii is theoretically protected by 36 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California that would be launched to intercept North Korean ICBMs over the Pacific. However, a Pentagon weapons testing office rated the $40 billion system in December as having low reliability. Another intercept test over the Pacific may occur next month.
If North Korea or another nation were to launch ICBMs at the United States, the decision would have to be made “which ones to take out or not,” Harris said. He added: “My personal opinion is that we would be better served with a defensive Hawaii radar and interceptors in Hawaii. I know that that is being discussed.”
Harris, whose headquarters is at Camp H.M. Smith on Oahu, said there are a “couple of defense contractors” interested in providing the Hawaii radar, previously described as a medium-range discriminating radar.
Picking an interceptor
The type of interceptors to potentially place in Hawaii “is the next level of detail,” Harris said, adding that he is not part of that discussion. U.S. Rep Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, asked about both the Aegis Ashore missile testing site on Kauai — which potentially could be switched over to defend against ICBMs — and a specific missile that might be used, the new SM-3 Block IIA.
“I think we should evaluate that (missile),” Harris said. “That should be one of the systems that we look at to see what’s best for the defense of Hawaii.”
Franks asked whether it made more sense to defend Hawaii from Alaska instead of using the Aegis Ashore site at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. “I believe we should do both. We should consider doing both,” Harris said.
Tensions have been running high with North Korea firing a multitude of test ballistic missiles in recent months and the specter of a sixth nuclear test or ICBM flight test. Worried that North Korea’s nuclear missile program is advancing toward deployment capability with each new test, the Trump administration warned that “all options are on the table,” including military strikes.
Closely watched nuclear developments by North Korea have cities including Honolulu and Seattle wondering whether they are in range of a North Korean ICBM. It’s a topic over which there is some debate.
The National Intelligence Council said in 1999 that a two-stage Taepo Dong 2, normally considered to be a space launcher for satellites, “could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to Alaska and Hawaii.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, wrote in 2015 that whether North Korea can arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the United States depends on answering three questions: 1. Can North Korea make a nuclear weapon small enough? 2. Can a compact nuclear weapon survive the shock, vibration and temperatures associated with ballistic missile flight? And 3. Can North Korea construct a re-entry vehicle that can withstand extreme heat?
“I think the answer to each of these questions is, ‘Yeah, probably,’” Lewis said.
Those same challenges have some experts contending North Korea is several years away from fielding an ICBM, which by definition has a range of at least 3,400 miles.
Lewis recently singled out a newer North Korean missile that may have the range to hit Hawaii and the mainland, the KN-08, but said it hadn’t been flight tested yet.
“This is a very important caution because an ICBM that has never been tested is very unreliable,” Lewis said in an email.
Then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in late October that “in the case of their intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08 specifically, neither they nor we know whether that missile actually works since it’s never been tested. But nevertheless, we ascribe to them the capability to launch a missile that would have a weapon on it that potentially could reach parts of the United States, certainly including Alaska and Hawaii.”
Harris said a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system for South Korea, which can defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, “will be operational in the coming days.”
‘Show of force’
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group now is in the Philippine Sea just east of Okinawa “in striking range and projection range of North Korea, if called upon to do that,” Harris said.
Harris accepted blame for earlier miscommunication over the location of the strike group, with top Trump administration officials implying the ships were racing for the Korean Peninsula when they were actually heading to the Indian Ocean for an exercise.
“That’s my fault on the confusion, and I’ll take the hit for it,” Harris said.
The guided missile submarine USS Michigan, loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles, also is in South Korea. “This is a show of solidarity with our South Korean allies and a flexible deterrent show of force to North Korea,” Harris said.
Recent actions by Beijing to deter North Korea’s nuclear program “are encouraging and welcome,” Harris said. Eighty percent of North Korea’s economy is based on China. “We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” the Pacific commander added.
But Harris also said North Korea remains the most immediate threat to security of the United States and its allies in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., told Harris he was “reasonably confident” that North Korea realizes what the consequence would be of launching a full-on war against South Korea or Japan, and asked whether the North might try something smaller like sinking a South Korean ship again.
“I don’t share your confidence that North Korea is not going to attack either South Korea or Japan or the United States or our territories” once they have that capability, Harris said.