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US ship-borne missile could stop North Korean attack, test shows

A Standard Missile 3 fires from the USS John Finn DDG-113. (U.S. Missile Defense Agency/Released)

The destroyer USS John Finn fired a new type of interceptor missile Monday night and destroyed a “threat-representative ” intercontinental ballistic missile in the broad ocean area northeast of Hawaii in a first-of-its-kind validation that has tremendous implications for the Aloha State.

Congress mandated the test to be a “defense of Hawaii ” scenario with the state currently underdefended against North Korean threats, according to some missile defense experts.

It was the first test of a ship-borne SM-3 Block IIA missile against an ICBM target, and the success will affect how other countries, including North Korea, China and Russia, view U.S. defensive capabilities.

But it’s the burgeoning North Korean threat that the unique ship-and shore-based missiles will be aimed at in the Pacific.

With a U.S. presidential transition, North Korea is widely expected to conduct another missile test to gauge the new administration’s response.

Riki Ellison, chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, predicts it will be sooner than later that Hawaii gets its own ICBM defense in the form of SM-3 Block IIA missiles.

“You’ll be the first one to get them, ” Ellison said. “I think you’re the No. 1 priority.”

Several destroyers in the Pacific—including the San Diego-based John Finn, named after a Dec. 7, 1941, hero—have the ability to fire the new missile at North Korean ICBMs, Ellison said.

But whether the Defense Department wants to park a multibillion-dollar destroyer off Hawaii for that defense, or activate a land-based version of that capability called Aegis Ashore which is already on Kauai, remains to be seen.

Either step could relieve pressure on the 44 big and aging ground-based interceptors, or GBIs, in Alaska and California that provide limited ICBM protection against North Korean missiles—and which have to travel a very long distance to protect Hawaii, Ellison notes.

“You’ve got now capability to completely defend Hawaii and mitigate the risk for all those limited GBIs, ” Ellison said. “They’ve got to be focused on the mainland. So (Hawaii ) is the No. 1 spot where (the new SM-3 IIA missiles ) are going in.”

With those interceptors possible for Hawaii, the sidelined $1.9 billion Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii could morph into a defense-of-Hawaii radar for them, Ellison said.

The Defense Department zeroed out funding for the radar in fiscal 2021, and the Senate Appropriations Committee wants to put $65 million back in—but with some modifications.

The committee recently noted that proposed sites for the big radar on Oahu are no longer considered viable and that the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, the only site left, would be examined in an environmental impact statement.

In Monday’s test, a target missile was launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll toward the broad ocean area northeast of Hawaii, the Missile Defense Agency said.

The destroyer used engage-on-remote capabilities using a variety of sensors as part of a defense-of-Hawaii scenario and fired an SM-3 Block IIA missile that destroyed the mock ICBM, the agency said.

“This was an incredible accomplishment and critical milestone ” for the SM-3 Block IIA program, Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said in a news release.

The successful intercept “is a step in the process of determining its feasibility as part of an architecture for layered defense of the homeland, ” Hill added.

Monday’s shoot-down was designated Flight Test Aegis Weapon System-44, or FTM-44. It was originally scheduled for May but was delayed due to COVID-19 and restrictions in personnel and equipment movement.

The test also moves what’s also known as an underlay defense one step closer to reality for Hawaii.

Although a lot of focus now is on China, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, “North Korea’s ballistic missile program is a rapidly developing threat to global security.”

The worries that prompted a mistaken Jan. 13, 2018, alert warning of a ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii haven’t gone away.

Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Oahu, told the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance in September that “North Korea, as long as they retain the capability to shoot long-range missiles and to continue to develop nuclear weapons, will remain, really, in my view, our most immediate threat.”

The United States has a range of missile defenses : the ground-based system, Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and Aegis ship-based systems that already could defeat some North Korean short-to intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

The 54-1 /2-foot ground-based interceptors have a range of 3, 728 miles compared with 994 miles for the 22-foot SM-3 IIA and 124 miles for 20-foot THAAD missiles, according to the Missile Defense Agency.

During an August Heritage Foundation interview, Hill said Patriot can be thought of as an ability to defend a city, THAAD to defend a state and Aegis with the SM-3 Block IIA able to defend a region, while the big ground-based missiles defend the country.

“You can imagine those as bubbles of protection or a shield across the country, ” Hill said. “To me it’s a no-brainer to have that sort of defensive depth.”

The Pentagon previously said it would evaluate the Pacific Missile Range Facility Aegis Ashore site to see whether it was a viable near-term option for a missile defense system. The Missile Defense Agency reported in February the test site could be temporarily activated in the event of a national emergency for missile defense.

Russia has complained that the SM-3 Block IIA’s significant capability would force it to respond with missile advances, and some members of Congress worried about an additional arms race.

But U.S. military officials say the missile defense program is not designed for, or capable of, going after advanced Russian or Chinese ICBMs.

Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, said in September that if the SM-3 Block IIA did work against an ICBM-class missile, “we have a capability to address the North Korean threat.”

He said he didn’t think the missile would pose a threat to a large nuclear force such as Russia—which has 1, 550 nuclear warheads.

The United States has 44 ground-based interceptors and eventually will have 64. As for SM-3 IIAs, “I’m not sure what the total number is, but it’s going to be in the low hundreds.”

“Given the small number of GBIs and SM-3 IIAs in the underlay, this doesn’t pose a threat to Russia, ” he said.


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