Establishing an Aegis Ashore missile interceptor site in Hawaii “may be a good idea” to help protect the U.S. mainland, the head of Pacific Command says.
“Whether we do it or not should be an outcome of a deliberative process,” Adm. Harry Harris said during a speech Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “I’m in support of studying it further and see where it goes.”
Aegis Ashore is the land-based version of the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system used on ships. Similar to the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, it destroys missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere.
The system was tested in December at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, where it destroyed a target launched from an Air Force plane. The Navy is soon slated to use Aegis Ashore at a base in Romania, with a second system planned for Poland in 2018.
The Pacific’s greatest missile threat comes from North Korea, whose secretive regime has been developing intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles. It is unclear how close it is to producing a miniaturized nuclear warhead to arm them. The country claimed an underground explosion in early January was a successful hydrogen bomb test, but nuclear experts are skeptical.
“We have to weigh all the pluses and minuses and all of that when we’re talking about the defense of the homeland,” Harris said. “The site in Hawaii may be a good opportunity.”
Harris was asked whether future freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, through which $1.2 trillion in annual trade transits en route to and from the U.S. mainland, would become more assertive than that of the USS Lassen last fall. Vessels are allowed to pass through territorial waters for “innocent passage.”
The guided-missile destroyer passed steadily and quickly within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, where China has been expanding tiny atolls with reclaimed sand and building landing strips and facilities on them.
“In a general sense, we will continue to do freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea as we do everywhere else in the world in areas we think are being contested,” Harris said. “I believe the Lassen operation did challenge some aspects of China’s claims, which we don’t hold to.”
For example, China had announced it required vessels to give prior notice before conducting innocent passage, which the U.S. did not do, he said.
“And I think as we continue down the path of freedom-of-navigation operations, you will see more of them and you will see them increasing in complexity and scope and in areas of challenge,” he said. “Beyond that, I’m not going to give you the details or specifics of the next operation and what it’s going to challenge and when it’s going to challenge and all that.”