$1 billion missile defense radar for Hawaii faces significant delay

An artist's rendering by Lockheed Martin of Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii in Oahu.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: January 15, 2020

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — A more than $1 billion missile defense radar for Hawaii has been significantly delayed, with Native Hawaiian cultural concerns emerging at one possible site on Kuaokala Ridge at Kaena Point and community worries about overdevelopment at two other candidate sites at Kahuku Training Area.

The Missile Defense Agency in June 2018 said an environmental impact statement for the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii would take up to 1 1/2 years, with construction in fiscal 2021 and initial operating capability in 2023.

But the agency now says a draft study isn’t even expected to be ready for public review and comment until the fall of 2021, with the startup date for operations being reexamined.

Congress, in turn, pulled $101 million in research and development funding from MDA’s $275 million 2020 request for the sophisticated missile-tracking radar, according to a National Defense Authorization Act conference report.

The delay raises questions about the viability of the project and the missile defense of Hawaii from North Korean threats when U.S. Indo-Pacific Command previously said it wanted to pursue the advanced radar before considering dedicated interceptor missiles for the state.

Some Native Hawaiians are threatening to protest, meanwhile, should the Kuaokala site be selected.

Heather Cavaliere, an MDA spokeswoman, said the agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are “actively engaged in refining schedule estimates (and) collaborating to reduce fielding timelines” by identifying ways to alter construction and work phasing “in order to deliver an operational site as soon as possible.”

Consultation also continues with Hawaiian groups.

The Hawaii radar is intended to reach farther out to identify and discriminate warheads from rocket parts and decoys sooner amid a proliferation of increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles.

“The projected missile threat is complex and volatile, and it includes evolving ballistic and hypersonic missile threats,” MDA Director of Operations Michelle Atkinson said at a news briefing in March. “It is critical that we continue to develop innovative and breakthrough technologies to outpace rogue state offensive missile capabilities.”

Congress has said the Hawaii radar, with a face 80 to 90 feet tall, is intended to “close coverage gaps” in the Pacific architecture. A high-power radar is being built in Alaska, and the Pentagon has plans for an additional Pacific radar, whose fielding has slipped by two years to 2026. Space-based sensors also are being aggressively pursued.

Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the MDA, told defensenews.com in August that as ballistic missiles become more complex, “the radar, in a sense of the architecture we have today, is not ready to take on larger numbers coming in and more complexity,” and having a large radar in Hawaii “allows you to see out far.”

“I think we owe it to the Hawaiian people. We owe it to the state,” Hill said, adding there is federal and state support for the radar. “We’re at the sensitive level now where the local communities are concerned about what it means for the environment, and we understand that,” he said.

MDA said it examined 46 sites in Hawaii to come up with three candidates sites: one up high on Kuaokala Ridge adjacent to the Air Force’s Kaena Point Satellite Tracking Station and two sites on the Army’s 9,500-acre Kahuku Training Area. Both face East Asia.

Before it could conduct “geotechnical testing” at Kuaokala — drilling up to 100 feet to determine the constructability of the site — an archaeological survey was done, and officials consulted with 145 Native Hawaiian organizations and individuals.

The 160-acre site is known to have two culturally historic properties:

— Mokaena Heiau, with four terraces, which is the highest of any heiau on Oahu; and “Site 8777,” a possible terrace and rock alignment.

— Kaena Point and Kuaokala Ridge are associated with “leina a ka uhane,” or “a leaping place of the spirit” in the afterlife.

“Many meeting participants were passionate about their concerns and delivered their comments with great emotion,” MDA noted.

One commenter said Kuaokala Ridge is a sacred place and that “drilling on the ridge is an act of desecration and is akin to drilling in Arlington (National) Cemetery.” MDA said the sites will be protected and avoided.

At a Chamber of Commerce Hawaii military partnership meeting last week, Navy Cmdr. Richard “Scott” McGowen, assistant to the MDA director at Indo-Pacific Command, said that “just by going up to Kaena Point and finding that one heiau and realizing there’s maybe even a couple more up there, we stopped. We want to take a step back; we want to look — OK, what else is here that we don’t want to interrupt?”

MDA’s Cavaliere said cultural resources and impact studies are either done or are being completed for the Kahuku Training Area proposed radar sites.

As the Honolulu City Council member representing both areas, Heidi Tsune­yoshi said she is “troubled by the adverse impact that could be caused to these peaceful, rural communities” with the radar siting.

“Kahuku residents continue to bear the burden of wind turbines being constructed in close next door to their homes and schools,” Tsuneyoshi said in an email.

The “compounding issues with these projects in close proximity of the small, rural community of Kahuku causes me great concern and as such I agree and support the community’s opposition to constructing the radar in Kahuku,” she said.

She added that her concern with Kaena Point as a potential site is that the area has always been regarded as a sacred place with historically and culturally significant areas.

Tsuneyoshi recommended that military sites not accessible by the general public should be considered — including Mount Kaala above Schofield Barracks “where another radar already exists and is coming to the end of its useful life.”

Riki Ellison, chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said the radar could wind up at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, one of the farthest west in the immediate island chain, and where other radars are located.

“I believe we can find a win-win situation, but it will take more discussions and looking at more options before moving forward,” Tsuneyoshi said.

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