A $30 million missile touted as a possible second layer of defense for Hawaii from North Korean threats reportedly failed in its first-ever flight from Kauai’s Aegis Ashore facility today when it did not intercept a target representing an intermediate-range ballistic missile.
U.S. Pacific Command put out a statement saying only: “The Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy sailors manning the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex conducted a live-fire missile flight test using a Standard-Missile (SM)-3 Block IIA missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai.”
The Pentagon is not publicly revealing the failure because of possible ramifications with North Korea tensions as well as concern for the upcoming South Korean Olympic games, CNN reported. According to the news channel, the target missile was launched by an aircraft.
Raytheon’s new SM-3 Block IIA missile, co-developed with Japan, is seen as a possible second layer of protection for Hawaii from North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles in addition to ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California — the only other line of defense.
The SM-3 IIA missile now has a record of one intercept in three tries off Kauai.
The Pearl Harbor destroyer USS John Paul Jones, used as a testbed for missile defense, conducted the first intercept of a ballistic missile target with an SM-3 IIA, successfully downing a medium-range target missile west of Kauai on Feb. 3.
A June 21 SM-3 IIA test against a medium-range target did not go as well when a sailor on the John Paul Jones mistakenly pushed a button that caused the Aegis weapon system to break engagement and initiate a message commanding the SM-3 IIA missile to destruct in flight, according to the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office.
Defense experts were increasingly calling for the SM-3 IIA, which flies faster and much farther than the current SM-3 1B missiles used on Aegis ballistic missile ships for shorter-range targets, to be seriously examined for the defense of Hawaii.
The state’s 38 minutes of fear after the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s false ballistic missile alarm Jan. 13 only propelled that further.
Retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a Jan. 18 opinion piece in Cipher Brief that 44 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California are not “optimized” for the defense of Hawaii.
“Because of the more southern trajectory of a ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii from Korea, it is more difficult to track and engage it using (ground-based interceptors),” said Winnefeld, who is on Raytheon’s board of directors.
The ground-based system has a record of 10 intercepts in 18 attempts, or a 56 percent success rate.
A new $1 billion radar is in the works to aid the defense of Hawaii by 2023, but Winnefeld said a “cheaper and faster solution” is available — loading the Aegis Ashore site on Kauai, now used only for testing, with SM-3 defensive missiles, including the new SM-3 IIA.
“This concept would protect Hawaii at least as well, if not better than, today’s plan to fire multiple (mainland-based ground-based interceptors) at a North Korean missile headed in that direction,” Winnefeld said.
That potential use also is part of an ongoing debate whether Aegis Ashore at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility should even be “operationalized” for the defense of Hawaii.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress in November said North Korea nuclear and missile tests “constitute a grave and imminent threat” to Asia-Pacific security and called for expansion of radar systems and a “sequenced approach” to the defense of Hawaii.
The bill reflected language inserted by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, seeking the protection of testing and training operations at the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
The Defense Department will “assess the siting and functionality of a discrimination radar for homeland defense throughout the Hawaiian Islands” before assessing the feasibility of basing missile interceptors in the state, the bill said.
The Missile Defense Agency said in June that the SM-3 IIA “could add another layer of defense to Hawaii” for intercontinental-range North Korean missiles. Intermediate-range missiles fly up to 3,400 miles, while ICBMs are defined as having a greater range. Hawaii is 4,660 miles from North Korea.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, is among those who maintain Hawaii is underdefended and has pushed for using Aegis Ashore in emergencies or giving the USS John Paul Jones added responsibility as a defense ship for Hawaii.
Raytheon said the new SM-3 IIA is initially aimed at shooting down short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
But 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.
The Alaska and California interceptors cost far more than SM-3 missiles and Hawaii could be better protected at a lower cost with interceptors in the state, Winnefeld said.
“What are the obstacles to doing this?” he wrote. “MDA is concerned that such a move will threaten development of its new radar. The Navy is worried that using existing PMRF launchers will impact future tests, but there will be space and time for the PMRF complex to meet all of the service’s needs.”
Civilian leaders on Kauai have been led to fear that operationalizing PMRF would cost jobs, “which is simply not the case,” Winnefeld said. “It may even add jobs.” Beyond that, the Army would not want to redirect one of its “scarce” AN/TPY-2 radars to the Hawaii mission, he said.
Capt. Vinnie Johnson, the commander of PMRF, said at a Jan. 12 military conference that the facility had 286 direct range support days with testing and training missions during fiscal 2017.
“It isn’t like we’re not doing a lot,” he said.
One Navy official questioned whether the remote threat of a North Korean missile is worth the neutering effect that operationalizing PMRF would have on research, development and testing.
A siting study is still being conducted for the medium-range discrimination radar for Hawaii.
The possibility of adding interceptor missiles is “still under study,” George Kailiwai, director of the requirements and resources directorate at U.S. Pacific Command, said at the military conference. “We’re looking at the sensor first and then the interceptors second.”
>> For the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s full coverage of Hawaii’s missile alert scare, go to http://808ne.ws/Hawaiimissilescare.