KAUAI, Hawaii—With a sprawling empty golden beach behind him, United States Navy Capt. Vincent Johnson, commanding officer of the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on this “garden island” in the Hawaiian archipelago, employs a real estate cliché to describe why his naval base is one of the world’s premier places to test and train for battle: “Location, location, location,” he says.
Clinging to the far west side of Hawaii’s westernmost main island, PMRF goes unseen by the throngs of tourists and is far removed from busy shipping lanes and air traffic. This remoteness adds to the appeal of a base that is used for surface, subsurface, air, and space testing and training.
The fact that North and South Korea are now set to share the limelight at the Winter Olympics next month has allowed the world to catch its breath. War seems less imminent.
But you wouldn’t know that here. Because if there is a war with North Korea, or with China, or indeed with almost any power that has a sophisticated arsenal, the weapons perfected on Kauai are the ones that are supposed to neutralize the threat.
PMRF is used by every branch of the U.S. military as well as NASA and Sandia National Laboratories. It can accommodate drones and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft as well as simulated amphibious assaults and helicopter raids.
Offshore, the Air Force uses the surrounding waters for Long Range Strike live fire testing, but PMRF’s primary purpose is as a testing and training site (PDF) for precision tracking (PDF), surveillance, advanced radar, and weapons like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). It’s deployed in Guam and, controversially, in South Korea, where Beijing takes particular umbrage precisely because its “surveillance” and “advanced radar” may reach into Chinese territory.
Last Oct. 31, PMRF was the launch site for a test related to Conventional Prompt Global Strike (PDF), which is developing an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon designed to strike anywhere in the world in under an hour, as The Daily Beast reported at the time.
In a recent interview, Capt. Johnson called PMRF “a national treasure for our ability to do testing and training.” Ongoing testing, he said, “keeps the technological edge we have over anybody that may be a competitor in the future.” Equipped with extensive telemetry, a 6,000-foot runway, over 1,100 square miles of instrumented underwater range, and 42,000 square miles of controlled airspace, PMRF also supports ballistic missile tests with its tenant the Kauai Test Facility, operated by Sandia National Laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Like a blast from the past, as it were, some of those ballistic missile tests today target the Marshall Islands, which were used for atomic weapons testing between 1946-1958 and are ground zero for the hypersonic shots today.
Lockheed Martin, which formerly managed Sandia, is also the manufacturer of the ground-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system, an adaptation of the “Aegis Afloat” system that has long been a fixture on U.S. warships. A U.S. Navy video presents it as a practical scaled-down version of the “Star Wars” defense proposed by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and it currently is being deployed in Europe.
PMRF is a critical testing and development complex for Aegis. In December, Japan’s government announced it would be buying two Aegis Ashore batteries for an estimated $2 billion. Earlier this month Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera took the rare step of flying to Kauai to visit PMRF for a firsthand look at the Aegis Ashore’s computer command and radar facilities.
Speaking to Japanese reporters—there was no U.S. media present—Onodera explained that Japan sees Aegis Ashore as a means of defending itself from both ballistic and cruise missiles. Onodera said the U.S. Pacific Command’s Adm. Harry Harris suggested Aegis Ashore is “probably the best option” for countering North Korea’s missile threats. But the arms bazaar hardly ends there.
The day before Onodera visited PMRF, the U.S. State Department approved the $133 million sale of SM-3 Block IIA missiles, manufactured by Raytheon Corp. The arms deals come on the heels of President Donald Trump’s East Asia trip in which he repeatedly boasted about selling more weapons to South Korea and Japan.
Aegis Ashore, which Japan could introduce by 2023, has already been deployed to a newly completed U.S. Naval base in the Romanian countryside in 2016. A second Aegis Ashore site is slated for completion at a Polish military base this year. The U.S. says the eastern European deployments are to deter conflict and defend against “Iran and other nefarious non-state actors,” but Russia sees itself as being targeted and considers it a “direct threat.”
The Russian foreign ministry has accused the Aegis Ashore deployments of violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Similarly, China has expressed strong opposition to the Aegis Ashore as well as the THAAD system in South Korea.
This week, direct talks between North and South Korea—which seemed unimaginable late last year—have yielded an Olympic diplomatic breakthrough and a notable easing of tensions as the two Koreas prepare to play under one flag and with a joint women’s ice hockey team.
How far Korean diplomacy will go is uncertain, but the U.S. vows it won’t be driven away from South Korea by Pyongyang and has doubled down on its insistence that the Korean Peninsula must be completely denuclearized, meaning that North Korea must give up what Kim Jong Un sees as decisive deterrence vital to the survival of the regime.
Meanwhile back on Kauai, which was rattled last weekend by a false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile, the United States’ own tests of outgoing weapons systems will continue.
In December, President Trump delivered a National Security Strategy which calls for a “multi-layered missile defense.” Asked what that could mean for PMRF, Capt. Johnson said, “I don’t think you’re going to see any changes.”
Missile tests are the primary reason PMRF exists, said Johnson. “We’re here because we are stewards of the nation’s security. There’s no other reason to be the last zip code in the United States.”