Vacationing on Kauai, the westernmost of the Hawaiian islands, the only question most tourists ask is which beach to go to today – but visitors and locals alike were startled by Thursday's news from Washington: a North Korean missile is now aimed at Hawaii, and Hawaii's missile defenses are being fortified.
Does that mean it's time to cancel the luau and get on the first plane home?
A Japanese newspaper reported that North Korea may – repeat may – fire "its most advanced ballistic missile toward Hawaii around July 4." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates then announced moving ground-based "interceptor" rockets to Hawaii, and activating the SBX – Sea-Based X-Band Radar, a $900 million, 280 foot high seagoing dome that looks like the world's biggest floating golf ball. It rides on a self-propelled oil platform, and is based at Pearl Harbor.
According to the Honolulu Advertiser, the SBX "was spotted heading out to sea on Wednesday."
The plan is that the SBX will find the incoming North Korean missile, and then the THAAD -- Terminal High Altitude Area Defense -- will shoot it down. Hawaii will remain safe.
The whole scenario is unlikely, to put it mildly. Start with the North Korean missile: when it was tested in 2006, the rocket fell into the Pacific a few seconds after launch. In a second test in April, the missile made it past liftoff, but hit the Pacific after 2,000 miles, less than half the distance to Hawaii.
So the snorkelers at Poipu are probably okay, at least for now.
More important, the notion that North Korea would attack the US is absurd, even in the eyes of old-line hawks. "It would justify massive retaliation and bring an end to the regime," Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information told the Advertiser. "North Korea has done a lot of crazy things, but they are not suicidal."
Even Heritage Foundation expert Bruce Klingner said it was misleading to report that North Korean missiles would be launched toward Hawaii. He suggested the North Korean target area should be described as "open water toward the east."
Finally, if the US did attempt to shoot down a North Korean missile, it could easily fail. That would be what diplomats call "an embarrassment." The THAAD was designed to shoot down Scud-type missiles, and according to the L.A. Times has never been tested on long range rockets.
Nevertheless champagne corks are probably popping at the offices of the contractors for the THAAD. For the biggest smiles, look to prime contractor Lockheed Martin, and then subcontractors Raytheon, Boeing, Aerojet, Rocketdyne, and Honeywell. The system is expected to cost tens of billions before it is declared obsolete.