Kaua'i missle range key in new defense system
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau
By Jan TenBruggencate
Technology tested and honed at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in sleepy West Kaua'i that can knock out enemy missiles like those launched Tuesday from North Korea will be installed in U.S. ships this year.
The coastal military base, in an arid region of the island known for sunny skies, sand dunes and rusty fishing trucks, is a hotbed of high-tech military wizardry, and its role in missile defense is growing. It is home to the near-operational rocketry that is heir to President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" system, once ridiculed as unlikely to ever work and at the same time dangerously provocative.
For the past four years, the range has helped build the Aegis ship-based missile-defense system that will be installed on 18 Navy cruisers and destroyers starting this year. Next year, the base becomes the primary testing range for THAAD — Terminal High Altitude Area Defense — a ground-based missile defense system that targets enemy missiles as they near their targets.
"It is the largest instrumented multidimensional testing and training range, the only range in the world where submarines, surface ships and aircraft can all operate and be tracked. It's truly unique among the military installations worldwide," said Lt. Barbara Mertz, public affairs officer for Navy Region Hawai'i.
The facilities are flexible and robust enough to do many of those things at once, and then bring sub commanders, rocket launchers, pilots and others into rooms to watch their tests replayed on computerized displays.
"The unique thing about PMRF is that we can test and train simultaneously, which no other range can do. From tracking submarines underwater during training exercises to tracking fast-moving objects in space in support of missile defense tests, we provide the facilities and all the data the customer needs to determine how well they performed," said base commander Capt. Mark Darrah in comments e-mailed to The Advertiser.
Driving down the two-lane, dead-flat strip of pavement that runs along the base, you wouldn't have a clue that all that activity exists. Clusters of single-story buildings, along with a few radar towers and antennas, stand in the blazing sun. The place looks deserted, since most everyone remains inside in air-conditioned comfort.
But this is a high-tech haven, where super-fast computing equipment tracks missiles and submarines in the waters offshore, where rockets burst from between the kiawe trees and new-generation radars sweep the skies, and where Pacific-nation fleets train, as they are doing now in Rimpac 2006.
The facility has gained national importance in view of its missile-testing mission.
"The Pacific Missile Range Facility provides an important service in the development of missile-defense capabilities. We are the proving ground for the ship-based Aegis missile defense system, and PMRF will soon host the demonstrations of the U.S. Army's layer of defense known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense," Darrah said.
In eight Aegis tests in recent years, the warhead has hit the target missile in mid-air seven times. The system destroys warheads by force of impact, not explosives.
Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency in Washington, D.C., said Aegis will go operational this fall, when it will be fitted on three Navy cruisers and 10 destroyers. Later, it will be added to five more destroyers for a total of 18 ships.
"The missile range is very important to U.S. missile defense. It allows us to test both sea- and ground-based missiles, and it has the space for realistic training," he said.
THAAD testing will be moved from New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range, where Lehner said there was "not enough room to fully test it."
"There's nowhere else in the United States where we can do this kind of testing. The range has the radars, the sensors, the range safety equipment, but it also has the space we need," he said.
Nobody, not even the Navy, knows how big an economic force the base is for Kaua'i. Tom Clements, public information officer for the range, said his best information is that the facility has roughly $80 million in contracts, a salary base of $50 million, and about $20 million in special projects such as the missile tests.
Clements said the base has about 880 workers, including 200 government civilian workers, 600 civilians working for base contractors and 80 active-duty Navy personnel. The Air National Guard's air control squadron on base has about 25 people, and during missile launches, there can be 400 people visiting from the Mainland, an event that happens as often as five times a year.
It's a Navy base, but a "nondenominational one" — a place where the Army, Marines, Air Force and even friendly foreign services train.
"The base is very important, and it's always good to have other services working with us," said Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, the Hawai'i state adjutant general.
It is a significant force in the Kaua'i economy now, and is building for the island a high-tech industry that will survive into the future, said Matilda Yoshioka, director of the nongovernmental Kaua'i Economic Development Board.
"We have more and more companies talking about moving here, and we have about 30 here now, either permanently or intermittently. Activity on the base has quadrupled in recent years," Yoshioka said.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at email@example.com.