Hawaii defense is the key in upcoming ICBM shoot-down test

In an October, 2018 photo, a target missile is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii during Flight Test Standard Missile-45. The USS John Finn detected and tracked the target missile with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar using the Aegis Baseline 9.C2 weapon system. Upon acquiring and tracking the target, the ship launched an SM-3 Block IIA guided missile which intercepted the target.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: March 30, 2020

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — As North Korea continues to fire off rockets, the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said that an upcoming first-of-its-kind test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile killer is being conducted with a “defense-of-Hawaii scenario” in mind.

The new SM-3 Block IIA missile, with longer reach and greater speed, could not only provide greater protection for Hawaii, but also Guam, other U.S. interests and Japan. The same ship- and shore-based missile would be used in Romania and Poland against Iranian missiles.

Russia doesn’t like any of it, and has said so repeatedly, claiming a new arms race will unfold.

“These plans cannot but concern us, the reports on the planned tests of SM-3 Block IIA to intercept ICBM once again confirm that Washington’s statement that the U.S. global missile defense system is ‘not directed’ against Russia is cynical,” Russian news agency TASS quoted that country’s foreign ministry as saying March 20.

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

Still, the question of SM-3 IIA capabilities in particular and the broader missile-based arms race came up at a March 12 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on fiscal 2021 priorities for missile defense.

“Are we just in a never-ending escalatory cycle because every time we develop more advanced missile defense, the Russians develop more advanced architecture?” U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said at the hearing.

“This is how it’s gone,” he added. “And at some point it’s just not strategically stable to be headed down this path.”

Moulton noted a Russian foreign minister had stated that the development of the SM-3 IIA “can only mean one thing”: that the United States had started to develop a system that is to be used against Russia.

But Rob Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, took issue with Moulton’s premise that U.S. missile defense has led to an expansion of Russian offensive capability.

“They do that (make those statements) to influence our allies and members of Congress,” Soofer said. He added that “they (Russia) protest too loudly. They should not be protesting. We are protecting ourselves against North Korea. We made that clear in policy terms, and in programmatic terms that’s obvious.”

The planned May test — if COVID-19 doesn’t stop it — is expected to see a Navy destroyer, likely the USS John Paul Jones out of Pearl Harbor, fire an SM-3 Block IIA missile at an ICBM target missile out over the Pacific.

“Defense of Hawaii is very important,” Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said at the March 12 congressional hearing. “But understanding how the SM-3 responds in that very stressing endgame is going to be important data that you can’t get from models or from ground testing.”

Hill said the congressional mandate was to “do a defense-of-Hawaii scenario” with the test. “So we’ll launch the ICBM (target), it will fly through the field of view of the sensor coverage and then we’ll fly that long-range and we’ll have ship mission planning — putting (the ship) in the proper position — and shoot the SM-3.”

Hill added that two of the SM-3 IIA missiles are on-site, likely the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, “so we have a primary and we have a backup, so we’ve brought in everything that we need to do to be successful in that test.”

Hill said the plan is to launch the same type of target missile that was used in 2019 during the first ICBM salvo engagement, with two ground-based interceptors in California countering a missile launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll 4,000 miles away.

Following launch detection by Air Force space-based infrared-detecting satellites, tracking information was passed through an AN/TPY-2 radar on Wake Island and the Sea-Based X-Band Radar, with exo-atmospheric “kill vehicles” released from the defensive missiles successfully engaging the target, the Missile Defense Agency said.

A Navy destroyer tracked the ICBM target and conducted a simulated SM-3 IIA engagement in preparation for the upcoming test against a mock ICBM. An F-35 Lightning II aircraft also was used in the sensor mix.

Based on the analysis, Hill said “we’re very confident we’re going to succeed” in the upcoming test.

The agency wants the SM-3 IIA as part of a possible layered homeland defense with 54-foot ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California taking the first shot at North Korean ICBMs.

The 22-foot SM-3 IIAs could be deployed to protect some U.S. cities as a second chance, while a limited number of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, batteries could provide a final shot.

“Provided a successful flight test in (fiscal) 2020, a limited layered homeland defense system utilizing the Aegis Weapon System firing SM-3 Block IIA missile will be available for fielding to the Navy by FY 2021,” the agency said.

It also said the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex on Kauai “can be temporarily activated in the event of a national emergency for operational use” with the new missile.

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