Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst: Why the U.S. Should Place a Ballistic Missile Defense Site in Hawaii
In the midst of a highly provocative string of North Korean missile tests, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirmed last month the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea, proclaiming that the soon-to-be deployed Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system “is for defense of our allies’ people.” North Korea’s Monday launch of four missiles, which according to North Korean state media was practice for striking U.S. bases in Japan, was only one in a string of recent provocations by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Considering North Korean efforts to develop a missile capable of striking America’s West Coast, the U.S. should provide for the defense of its own people by turning the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai in Hawaii into an operational ballistic missile defense (BMD) site, as outlined in this 2016 ALEC model policy. While drawbacks exist, this new BMD site would both deter and defend the U.S. from North Korean aggression in a cost-effective manner.
Described by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, as America’s “most volatile and dangerous threat,” North Korea has steadily expanded their nuclear and missile testing programs, culminating in Monday’s launch. Of particular concern is the Taepodong-2 satellite-launching missile, which has a projected range of 4,000-10,000km with a payload potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. While threatening, it also has serious flaws: it is markedly inaccurate, it has to sit for days on a highly visible launchpad before launching, North Korea may not have a nuclear device small enough to be carried by the Taepodong-2, among other technical issues. Nevertheless, the U.S. is concerned that the DPRK will solve most, if not all, of these problems by 2020 with new Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) like the KN-08 or its successor the KN-14. This capability would give the DPRK leverage to try to force the U.S. to abandon its military commitment to South Korea. Even worse, if the regime “crumbles,” there is risk of a civil war causing chaos in the nuclear-armed country. The U.S. would be wise to consider countermeasures should diplomacy or the regime fail.
The Proper Response
Fortunately, the U.S. military is increasingly confident it can meet this threat. Alongside the THAAD system going to South Korea, the U.S. has also been deploying the Aegis Ashore system, a land-based variant of its Aegis missile defense system used on U.S. Navy destroyers. The destroyer-version of Aegis is already being utilized by numerous countries, has successfully passed the vast majority of its tests and would likely be capable of destroying any incoming North Korean missiles. As Aegis Ashore is already being deployed to Europe to counter Iranian missiles, deploying it to Hawaii, as Adm. Harris is considering, makes sense. First, BMD sites take years to build, making them by definition a proactive, and not a reactive, defense measure. Secondly, the Aegis Ashore system would require a fraction of the cost ($700 million vs. $2 billion) and crew (15 vs. 300-400) necessary for the destroyer version. Third, the facility would complement existing destroyer defenses, critically giving the U.S. additional chances to intercept incoming missiles. Finally, this deters North Korea from both developing and launching the missile.
The likeliest reasons North Korea is developing the missile are to protect itself and gain diplomatic leverage in negotiations, particularly over U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Numerous negotiating rounds and sanctions have only slowed North Korea’s accession into the nuclear club. Moreover, China has either been unwilling or unable to convince North Korea to end its nuclear or missile programs. Despite this, diplomatic efforts are still necessary to avoid conflict and foster even slow progress. However, preparing missile defenses in Hawaii ensures that American citizens will be safe should diplomacy fail. Furthermore, with Aegis Ashore nullifying the DPRK missile threat, North Korea gains virtually nothing and the status quo remains. The U.S. would be prepared for any sudden launch. This is an unlikely scenario, as the North Korean regime is not suicidal, but the risk, plus the low cost of the proposed defenses, makes the policy worthwhile.
Overall, the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai should be made into an operational BMD site. This is a prudent, less costly and effective countermeasure against a rogue state that seems poised to develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear device to the U.S. Rather than trust North Korea either to fail in creating the missile or not launch it, the U.S. should neutralize the threat before it materializes. While China will be upset with this measure, it is still within U.S. interests to take the necessary steps to defend the homeland. The U.S. must take great pains to show that the proposed BMD site would only be directed against North Korean missiles, not Chinese. The BMD site should also not be taken as a substitute for diplomacy with North Korea, as it is better that the site is never needed rather than used as the only option.