Hawaii shouldn’t be held for “nuclear ransom” by North Korea and needs to activate its Aegis Ashore missile testing facility on Kauai in times of emergency to provide a layered missile shield for the isles, a defense expert told Hawaii state lawmakers Wednesday.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit group, briefed two committees on North Korea’s posture and U.S. missile defense. He later noted that the Aegis Ashore facility was put in place to test land-based missiles for Romania and Poland and the defense of Europe.
“We’re paying for these missiles. We built these missiles and now we’re sending them — after they are tested and proven right here in Hawaii” — to Europe, Ellison said.
That same defense doesn’t extend to Hawaii, he noted.
Ellison maintains that the $450 million Aegis Ashore installation at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, which is due for just one more missile test in fiscal 2018, could be made operational in times of emergency for about $25 million.
“Why would we not do that?” he said.
It’s an argument that Ellison has made before. However, with the ratcheting up of tensions with North Korea, the twin issues of missile offense and defense are on the front burner for Hawaii and the nation.
North Korea fired a test ballistic missile on Friday, and the United States on Wednesday flight-tested its second intercontinental ballistic missile in a week.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, said the use of Aegis Ashore for the defense of Hawaii in emergencies “may become necessary — and I think everybody would support that.”
Hanabusa said it would have to be shown that activating Aegis Ashore for defense would be the most effective route for the greater protection of Hawaii before she would support such a step.
Now, the Pacific Missile Range Facility is “so important” for testing, Hanabusa said in a phone interview. Questions have been raised whether the Pacific Missile Range Facility can continue its missile testing mission while also posturing for the defense of Hawaii.
Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, answered that question when he testified last week before the House Armed Services Committee. “I believe they can co-exist,” he said.
A sophisticated medium-range discrimination radar is planned for Hawaii that could identify and track missiles thousands of miles away and is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $750 million. Longer term, Hawaii and the rest of the United States may face other long-range threats, including hypersonic and cruise missiles, Ellison noted.
Hawaii now is theoretically protected from intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, by 36 ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, but the system’s reliability is questionable.
Ellison, whose nonprofit organization receives support from the public and missile defense industry, said SM-3 Block IB and newer SM-3 Block IIA missiles — the latter of which has extended range capability — could provide Hawaii multiple shot opportunities beyond ground-based interceptors to take out incoming missiles.
The U.S. military already has an AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar at he Pacific Missile Range Facility, and crews that are already trained on the East Coast for the missile defense Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland could be flown to Hawaii in emergencies, Ellison said.
“So you could bring capability without much cost into Hawaii within probably 48 hours and have a capability, if it’s needed, to be able to better defend or have another layer of defense, and that capability can grow to become more advanced,” Ellison told lawmakers. “But that’s what I am suggesting to make your 1.4 million people here safer.”
Ellison said the time for a North Korean nuclear missile to reach Hawaii is about 20 minutes and 33 to 34 minutes to reach the mainland. With Hawaii’s closer distance to North Korea — about 4,660 miles — he believes the state is within range of even the intermediate-range North Korean liquid-fueled Musudan missile.
Intermediate-range ballistic missiles are generally described as being able to fly up to 3,400 miles, while ICBMs are defined as having a range beyond that.
Rep. Matt LoPresti, whose district includes Ewa Beach, said he recently sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for the Kauai Aegis Ashore to be made operational for defense.
Rep. Dee Morikawa said that in her district, which includes the Pacific Missile Range Facility, a fear is that with added missile capability, “we (in Kauai) become the target now” for hostile countries. But Ellison said “you would not be in a more (threatened) position than Pearl Harbor.”
Oahu, with its high-level military commands, is seen as the main strategic target in Hawaii for a possible North Korean strike.
Ellison said the reality of the standoff with North Korea is that “China’s got to handle this, and from my perspective, regime change needs to happen.” He added he saw no point in direct U.S. negotiations with leader Kim Jong Un. If that happens, “he walks away as a winner,” Ellison said. “He walks away even more brash and more bullyish and he will come back with more capability.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. David Ige was asked about the North Korea threat and said he is working with U.S. Pacific Command and other military leaders “to ensure that the people of Hawaii are protected.”
“I do think that the increasing threat from North Korea is a real threat that we need to plan for,” Ige said. “We do have significant investments in Hawaii that we need to provide for, and we will be working with Pacific command to ensure that we have appropriate defenses for the people of Hawaii.”
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