Six years ago, I wrote a blog post titled Ready, Aim, Fire about the successful ICBM defense test that had just taken place on and near Wake Island in November 2015. In this test a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system stationed on Wake detected, intercepted, and downed a target missile launched from a C-17 over the Pacific. While other components of the layered defense system failed in that test, the success at Wake warranted publicity, given the provocative missile launches by North Korea in mid-decade. Since 2015 the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has ramped up missile defense testing and Wake Island continues to serve a vital role. One cannot shake the irony that this tiny Pacific atoll, where absence of radar in December 1941 doomed it to fall, has now hosted the most sophisticated missile defense radar in the U. S. arsenal.
As an adjunct of the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein, Wake participates in numerous aspects of the missile defense system. (The U. S. withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.) In March 2019 Wake operated one of two powerful radars tracking an ICBM target launched from Kwajalein heading for the United States. Fire control stations at bases in Colorado and Alaska received the transmitted radar data, enabling them to launch two ground-based interceptors from California’s Vandenberg AFB, one of which destroyed the ICBM target. The layered strategy – two independent radars, two fire control stations, and two interceptors – increases the odds of success. A breakthrough occurred in November 2020 when the Aegis weapon system on the USS John Finn made the first successful ship-based intercept of an ICBM target launched from Kwajalein, expanding the global mobility of the system.
Hundreds of millions of defense dollars expended on airport expansion and infrastructure improvements on Wake Island in recent years further underscores the strategic importance of the island. In 2020 defense contractors rebuilt the 9,800-foot runway (long enough for any U. S. military aircraft) and expanded both east and west aprons. In July 2020, Tyler Rogoway, editor-in-chief of the national defense online magazine, The War Zone, posited that the airport expansion project heightens Wake’s importance amid rising tensions between the U. S. and both China and Russia. In a potential peer state conflict, Wake could provide a staging ground for westward combat missions, as well as an “essential fallback point,” if needed. Unlike bigger but closer bases on Okinawa and Guam, Wake’s location in the mid-Pacific is outside the reach of China’s medium-range (620-1,860 miles) and close to the limits of intermediate-range (1,860-3,410 miles) ballistic missiles. In addition, Wake is an ideal “tanker bridge” to refuel F-22 and F-35 U. S. fighters heading thousands of miles to potential front lines. Rogoway suggests that Wake’s strategic importance is higher now than any time since WWII.
The rapid expansion of the U. S. missile defense system and buildup of Pacific outposts runs the risk of provoking foes, however. In Building for War, I explored the thin line between deterrence and provocation in 1941. Building fortified bases on outlying islands near Japan’s island mandates and parking rows of B-17s on Japan’s doorstep in the Philippines all fit into the American military vision of “big stick” deterrence before the sky fell in December 1941. Eighty years later, given the recent string of successful U. S. missile intercept tests, China and Russia have reason to be concerned (and who knows what Kim Jung Un is thinking). Shortly after the successful 2020 anti-ballistic missile test, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cautioned that other nations could perceive the tests as hostile moves, prompting “defense vs defense” and a new arms race. It is a risky move to carry a big stick on such a thin line.