HONOLULU — The U.S. Navy's successful sea-based ballistic missile defense is coming ashore in Hawaii, Romania and Poland with the goal of increasing protection from the high-flying threats.
The "Aegis Ashore" test facility at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, which cost $400 million to build, held a "light-off" ceremony Dec. 6, signifying the first time the equipment was powered on, an official said.
A site dedication for the start of the project was held more than two years ago in August 2011.
The first Standard Missile-3 is expected to streak skyward in the spring toward a simulated short- or intermediate-range ballistic missile — reversing the role PMRF usually plays as a launch site for "enemy" missiles and ship-based Navy shoot-down practice.
Using the same equipment as on ballistic missile defense destroyers and cruisers, including a deckhouse with an AN/SPY-1 Aegis radar system, and a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System with SM-3 defensive missiles, the land-based variant is like a ship that's been dismantled and partially reassembled on shore.
In this case, the deckhouse is less than a half-mile from the ocean, and the launcher is 31/2 miles away.
The new Kauai facility is part of a 2009 Obama administration initiative called the "phased adaptive approach" to protecting parts of Europe using U.S. Navy ships with ballistic missile defense and Aegis Ashore installations in Romania and Poland that would each have 24 SM-3 missiles.
Officials say the U.S. and European NATO allies face a growing threat from the proliferation of ballistic missiles, particularly those of Iran.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency said the Kauai facility will support certification testing for Aegis Ashore in Europe, with the Romania site expected to be functional in 2015 and Poland in 2018.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said the European Aegis Ashore sites, along with four ballistic missile Navy ships to be home-ported in Rota, Spain, will be the "cornerstone" of protection for Europe from Iran, North Africa and the Middle East.
Ellison said that protection extends to Hawaii.
"These Aegis Ashore sites (in Europe) do not have the vertical boost velocities and speed capabilities to defeat (inter-continental ballistic missiles) launched from either North Korea or Iran towards the United States," Ellison said in a May MDAA "alert." He added, "However, the Aegis Ashore site in Hawaii will have capability to defeat incoming missiles to Hawaii."
The Missile Defense Agency downplayed the ability, saying, "The Aegis Ashore facility is a test facility, and is not planned as an operational site." The agency referred questions about the defensive capability to U.S. Pacific Command.
Hawaii already has five ships based at Pearl Harbor with ballistic missile shoot-down capability, but the Aegis Ashore facility, if also given the job, would be another layer of defense in the Pacific.
One of those ships, the cruiser USS Port Royal, is slated for retirement by the Navy, but Congress is blocking the effort.
Another ballistic missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense was deployed to Guam in April from Fort Bliss in Texas in the wake of missile threats earlier this year from North Korea, the Army said.
Weapons system testing at the Kauai Aegis Ashore site (not including flight testing) is in progress and is expected to be completed by late spring, the Missile Defense Agency said. The facility will employ 10 to 20 civilians.
A draft environmental analysis released several years ago said there would be a maximum of four high-altitude launches per year. The missile agency recently said a "master test plan" is updated twice a year and there is not a set number of flight tests at this point.
The average cost for an at-sea Aegis ballistic missile test is $30 million to $40 million, the agency said. Aegis Ashore flight tests are expected to have similar costs.
Lockheed Martin, which is helping develop Aegis Ashore, called the approach "an evolution of proven sea-based Aegis (ballistic missile defense) capabilities."
The Navy's cruisers and destroyers are called Aegis ships because they are equipped with the Aegis ship combat system, an integrated collection of sensors, computers, software, displays and weapons launchers named after the mythological shield that defended Zeus, the Congressional Research Service said.
The research service reported in May that there were 31 ships in fiscal 2013 with ballistic missile shoot-down capability, and the expectation of 41 by 2018.
The Pearl Harbor cruiser USS Lake Erie successfully shot down a medium-range ballistic missile target over the Pacific on Oct. 3. It was fired from Kauai using a second-generation Standard Missile-3 Block 1B.
The flight test was the 28th successful intercept in 34 flight test attempts for the Aegis ballistic missile defense program since flight testing began in 2002, the Missile Defense Agency said at the time.
The SM-3 is designed to intercept ballistic missiles above the atmosphere — i.e., exo-atmospheric, in the midcourse phase of flight, the Congressional Research Service said.
The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance's Ellison said, "Aegis Ashore will be a core component platform of the global missile defense architecture."
North Korea is developing an intermediate-range Taepodong 2 missile with a capability to hit Hawaii and the mainland, but U.S. officials have characterized the country's nuclear aspirations as more focused on deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy, the Council on Foreign Relations said.
Faced with growing threats, the United States will seek to build on the European "phased adaptive approaches" to ballistic missile defense for use in the Asia-Pacific and Mideast, the Missile Defense Agency said in a budget document.
Future capabilities for Aegis Ashore include the expectation of engagement of longer-range ballistic missiles.
"Aegis Ashore may spread beyond Europe," Defense Industry Daily reported. "In the Pacific, Japan is already deploying SM-3s at sea, and may find land-based counterparts useful."
An area of deficit found by the Congressional Research Service in its May report was a lack of a U.S. target to simulate the endo-atmospheric (final) phase of flight for China's DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile.