A beefed-up missile-defense radar system for Hawaii is expected to be operational by the fall of 2023, but the deployment of a state-based interceptor system remains undecided, the head of U.S. Pacific Command said Wednesday.
The siting process for the Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii is nearly complete, with a contract for the work expected to be awarded this year, Adm. Harry Harris said in written testimony submitted as part of a hearing before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
“The new radar will provide an enhanced ballistic missile sensing and discrimination capability in the Pacific and will increase the capability of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System to defend the state of Hawaii,” Harris said. “This radar is being built to stay ahead of potential future threats.”
The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System uses interceptors launched from Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
North Korea is the preeminent missile threat to Hawaii. Harris cited its Sept. 3 nuclear test and the Nov. 28 test launch of a Hwasong-15 long-range intercontinental ballistic missile as recent examples of the rogue regime’s pursuit of weapons that could be used on American soil.
The Missile Defense Agency is requesting nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2019 for the Hawaii radar system and a similar system elsewhere in the Pacific for a location yet to be announced.
“One of the things that we need to do is maintain custody of the threat from birth to death, and so with terrestrial-based radars we have to put them in locations that we can maintain custody,” said Gary Pennett, MDA’s director of operations, during a budget briefing for reporters at the Pentagon Monday.
Harris was less certain about the step beyond the Hawaii radar system, which would be some sort of Hawaii-based missile interception system.
“I’m not smart enough to zero in on a system for Hawaii,” said Harris, who is expected to retire in May and has been nominated for ambassadorship to Australia.
As he has said in the past, Harris told lawmakers he advocates for MDA to conduct a study to determine which system of Hawaii-specific interceptors would work best.
A couple of options are Aegis Ashore, which shoots down short- to intermediate-range missiles, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, which also defends against ballistic missiles up to intermediate range, Harris said. The answer might also be some other “ground-based interceptor capability” in Hawaii.
“I think all those should be looked at,” he said. “I think today — from the threat that we face in Hawaii from North Korea — Aegis Ashore and THAAD might not be the best platforms for Hawaii given the trajectory and the geometries of the missiles that are launched.”
North Korea only last year began test launching long-range missiles that could reach America.
Harris said he is “confident” for now that the missile interceptors fired from California and Alaska are sufficient to protect Hawaii, which is headquarters to PACOM, Pacific Fleet, U.S. Army Pacific and Pacific Air Forces, as well as home to Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands.
“But I think in the years ahead, it would do us well to at least study the possibility of putting some kind of interceptor capability in Hawaii,” he said.
“[G]iven where we think the North Korean capability might be in terms of their missiles in three or four years, in the early 2020s, I think we must continue to improve our missile defenses,” he said.
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