Two Ebeye men who washed up in the Federated States of Micronesia after six weeks adrift on a powerless boat have made it back to Kwajalein Atoll.
Stepping off Air Marshall Islands’ Dash 8 airliner May 28 on Kwajalein, Godfrey Capelle and Benjamin Thomas became the first people to re-enter the RMI since the imposition of a COVID-19-related RMI.
For nearly 1.5 months, the men’s boat drifted 1,000 miles (880 nautical miles) on a west-southwest heading, passing tantalizingly close to Pohnpei, before luckily washing up May 14 on the remote Namoluk Atoll, 130 miles southeast of Chuuk. Two weeks later, following the RMI government’s decision to repatriate the men, FSM authorities transported Capelle and Thomas to Pohnpei via a patrol vessel, after which the Air Marshall Islands flight brought them to Kwajalein May 28.
But after coming so far, they cannot go home quite yet. Because the two men washed up in the FSM, one of the few nations along with the RMI to remain free of the coronavirus, Marshall Islands officials allowed the men back into the country, provided they undergo testing for the virus before and after travel from Pohnpei, FSM and also endure a strict 14-day quarantine on Kwajalein. Only after they complete their quarantine can they return to their homes and families on Ebeye.
The risk the fishermen contracted COVID-19 had been low, the RMI Office of the President affirmed in a May 28 statement. But the repatriation of Capelle and Thomas, along with five other RMI citizens who were permitted to take advantage of the AMI flight from the FSM, has provided the Marshall Islands government a rare cohort of people needed to test the quarantine protocols and facilities established on Majuro and Kwajalein. For the time being, these re-entries will be limited exceptions to the ongoing re-entry ban, which was extended on June 5 for another 30 days. The quarantine facilities and the medical and support staff operating them will be essential in prohibiting the transmission of the virus into the atolls of Kwajalein and Majuro and beyond.
Following a protocol developed by USAG-KA and contractor leadership, on May 28 medical staff in full protective gear greeted Capelle, Thomas and fellow Ebeye resident Connielynn Paul, who had also been stranded in Pohnpei. After taking the travelers’ temperatures, the hospital personnel gathered mucus samples for COVID-19 analysis at the hospital’s laboratory, all results of which came back negative. The visitors then began their 14-day isolation period in empty homes set aside as quarantine facilities on Kwajalein.
The threat of contracting the coronavirus has been the least of the men’s worries, however. Having survived nearly 1.5 months in the open Pacific Ocean in a small, powerless skiff, Capelle and Thomas have certainly put the worst behind them. They can endure another two weeks together, on dry land a stone’s throw from their homes and families.
Capelle took a few minutes Thursday to tell a bit of the harrowing story.
It was a routine fishing trip April 2. Capelle, Thomas and a third man on the boat, Junior Joram, who did not survive the ordeal, had punched through SAR Pass and were working their fishing lines when the carburetor in Capelle’s 40-horsepower outboard motor jammed, he said. It was about 3 or 4 p.m., and they were already three miles off the west reef between Kwajalein and Eneobuj. The motor would not restart.
Capelle called for help via his radio at about 5:30 p.m., and within an hour a pair of RMI search and rescue vessels set out to retrieve the men and the 20-foot boat, RMI authorities stated. But by early evening, ushered west by winds gusting between 25 and 35 mph, the men were quickly losing sight of Eneobuj and Kwajalein. When the rescue group on the search vessels finally spotted Capelle’s boat shortly before sundown, the small skiff was already six miles outside SAR Pass, Giff Johnson of the Marshall Islands Journal had reported in April.
But “I saw the federal boat come close to me,” Capelle said Thursday. “But they never see my light.” The rescuers had actually decided against pursuing the fishermen in the rough seas at night, hoping to resume a wider search the next day in safer conditions. By the next morning, well outside of working range of Capelle’s very high frequency radio, the fishermen were firmly on their way to nowhere in particular.
In the coming days, a crew aboard one of the garrison’s Fairchild Metroliners initiated a search effort west and southwest of Kwajalein. And, per request from the RMI Embassy in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue team flew out a C-130 from Hawaii to aid in the search effort. But all attempts to locate the blue-and-white-painted 20-foot skiff, and the three Ebeye residents aboard, turned up nothing.
“What I do is just pray,” Capelle said. For weeks, the men held on as aggressive trade winds kicked the boat through 10-foot seas broiling atop five miles of endless blue water. “Sometimes I was scared,” Capelle said. “Sometimes big waves. Big waves. Rain.”
The men still had their fishing gear and were able to catch fish attracted to the boat—the only landmark on the surface for hundreds of miles. They took advantage of seabirds landing on the boat, as well, lunging at them and trapping them with their hands. A quick whack with an oar usually did the trick too, Capelle said. Preparing the birds was unappealing, but they did their best to dry the meat out using the sun’s heat. “After maybe three hours, eat,” he said.
Long days and long nights lied ahead. Passover went by. Then Good Friday and then Easter. “Oh yeah, we pray. Prayed a lot. Every day,” Capelle said, adding that it was his faith in God and his love for his family that kept him going. He also knew if they waited long enough, the trade winds were bound to push them into one of the islands or atolls peppering the ocean surface throughout Micronesia. “I know there is an island,” he said he told himself, Thomas and Joram. “I know plenty island to the southwest.”
On April 19, 2.5 weeks into the odyssey, tragedy struck. It was at about 1 p.m. when a large wave knocked one of the boat paddles into the water, or caused it to fall out of one of the men’s hands, Capelle said. Joram knew it was dangerous to get in the water and leave the boat, but he also knew how important that oar might be to them if they sighted land. “I tell him already if something drops, do not jump into the water,” Capelle said. Joram went after it anyway. He made it to the paddle, “and so he tried to swim the paddle back but can’t. There’s too much waves, wind. We tried to help him, but cannot.”
As the boat drifted away, so did Joram’s chance of surviving. He would never make it back to the boat. “I do not know what happened to him,” Capelle said.
Four days later, around April 23, Capelle and Thomas spotted Pohnpei. The mountainous island was heartbreakingly close—about the distance Ebeye is from Carlos, said Capelle. But the trade winds had nudged his boat just south of its fringing reef, and there was no chance the men could fight the wind and close the distance with only one paddle. “I saw Pohnpei. I tried to go to it, but the wind coming northeast, so I cannot.”
Another 2.5 weeks of survival at the mercy of the Pacific lied ahead for Capelle and Thomas. The two men sustained themselves on whatever fish, birds and rainwater they could collect. Their friend was gone, and they prayed day in and day out. At night, they looked up at the glittering arms of the Milky Way as the ocean’s black rollers slid them farther from home and hoped to make it off the boat alive.
And then, one day, they did.
On May 12, Capelle and Thomas spotted a couple of low-lying islands in their path. And as if answering their prayers, the wind blew the boat right into the reef’s embrace at about 5 p.m. It was Namoluk Atoll, a pint-sized atoll measuring only three miles long at its widest point and located 130 miles southeast of Chuuk. Only five islands comprise the atoll, and Capelle and Thomas had landed on the reef next to one of the smallest, likely Lukan, on the atoll’s northern periphery.
Asked how he felt Thursday when setting foot on the beach, Capelle was reserved. “I just thanked God and pray,” Capelle said. “I was happy.”
That night on the small island he noticed lights on the larger island, Namoluk, to the west just about a mile away. “I saw the light on the Namoluk. So I said, ‘Oh there’s people there. Tomorrow we go there.’” After sleeping on solid ground for the first time in six weeks, Capelle and Thomas got up and paddled all the way to Namoluk Island, meeting the villagers who would take them in and radio authorities in Chuuk for help.
Capelle and Thomas spent the next two weeks in Chuuk. While the governments of the FSM and RMI figured out how to possibly repatriate the fishermen under the ongoing COVID-19-related travel restrictions and re-entry bans, the men had time to reflect on how fortunate they were to wash up on Namoluk. Had they missed the little atoll, the next possible body of land on Capelle’s and Thomas’ heading—barring currents—would have been a northern province of Indonesia: an additional 1,700 miles of travel and approximately another nine weeks of survival in Capelle’s small boat.
At the time of the publication of this story, Capelle and Thomas are on day nine of their quarantine on Kwajalein. Capelle said he’s pleased with the quality of care he’s receiving from the medical and support staff tasked with monitoring his health and delivering hot meals and other supplies to the men three times per day.
But 62 days after setting out on that ill-fated fishing trip, he can’t wait to get home to Ebeye to see the people he cares about the most.
“I want to see my family and my friends,” he said.
After that? Well, Capelle’s got to provide, he said: “Back to fishing. I will look for another boat.”
A searing sun slides into the horizon, revealing a cavalry of puffy horsehead-shaped clouds marching slowly westward. Carl McGrew, a visitor all too familiar with the iconic cotton-candy-pink sunsets of Kwajalein Atoll, props himself on the mainsail boom of his son’s sailboat, Cherokee, and lets the moment soak in. “How sweet it is,” he says, clasping a cup of icy gin and tonic water.
Between brief, quiet moments of reflection, he tells story after story about his adventures on and off Kwajalein Missile Range, hitting everything from his involvement in the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense program, to catching massive marlin with nothing but the head of a mop and fishing line. His presence aboard the boat is one of the reasons I’ve accepted a last-minute invitation to set sail on a short trip to Roi-Namur with him, his son, Paul, and friends and family. If Carl was going, I wanted to go, too. Not only to share his company but also to record a little of the history of the anti-ballistic missile programs in which he was involved.
A retired Army major in the explosive ordnance disposal field, and later a Kwajalein Missile Range operations officer with more than 13 years of service on Kwaj, McGrew helped direct missions on the range through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These were pivotal times for America’s anti-ballistic missile programs.
McGrew’s assignment as an EOD officer at White Sands Missile Range was one of his earliest forays into the ABM industry.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Bell Telephone Laboratories, Western Electric and other contractors hired by the Army Rocket and guided Missile Agency were tasked with developing a viable ABM system, busying themselves with early test launches of the superfast short-range ABM missile called Sprint. McGrew was assigned to EOD support for these missions.
“There were some 45 Sprint missiles launched at White Sands,” he says. “I was able to support some 15 of those there in the early development of the Sprint, since it was a very hot booster system.” Equipped with a small, 1-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, it was designed to intercept ICBMs inside the atmosphere just 15 seconds after launch. In testing, the two-stage missile popped out of its silo via a small explosive piston, after which its first stage ignited and accelerated the vehicle at more than 100Gs to a max speed of Mach 10 in just 10 seconds—so fast the nose cone became incandescent. The missile’s engineering was nearly beyond the state of the art. “They had about a 50 percent success rate just to get [Sprints] out of the silos,” McGrew tells me. But the early testing at White Sands created a stable foundation for engagement and intercept testing at Kwajalein, where McGrew would continue to work with the Sprints and another longer-range missile system called Spartan.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the Nixon administration, the Joint Chiefs and a slim congressional majority supported deployment of these ABM missiles and two families of advanced phased array radars in an ABM arrangement called Safeguard. Centered among the wheat fields outside of Nekoma, North Dakota, construction of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex was nearly complete, with systems soon coming online, when McGrew, still an Army EOD officer, moved his family to Kwajalein in June 1974. Flight tests of the Safeguard program’s Sprint and Spartan interceptor missiles were launching from Meck and Illeginni at a breakneck rate: roughly one M2-series intercept attempt a month, and the population of Kwaj was more than 6,000, McGrew remembers. He was assigned to Kwajalein Missile Range’s range operations group, working in the building now known as 1010, and he and four officers directed the range’s operations and mission scheduling for the Sprint and Spartan launches. “When Sprint finally arrived at Kwajalein, it was very successful,” he says. “The development program allowed for it to launch from Meck Island and Illeginni. So, Sprint was a very successful, high-performance missile.” Meck was a beehive of activity until the final test shots, Safeguard M2-545 and M2-548, blasted off the pad at Meck the following April, ending this crucial testing period for the Safeguard program.
U.S. Army Safeguard Command activated the Mickelsen Safeguard Complex in North Dakota on Sept. 28, 1975, and only 19 weeks later the Joint Chiefs ordered the site to shut down: The slim congressional majority that had authorized the program years earlier had given way to voices opposed to Safeguard. It was the end of the line for nuclear-armed ABM missiles on American soil. A new phase in the evolution of ABM defenses would soon begin.
“Those programs were very successful,” McGrew says. “But with the [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] agreements, those systems were taken off the shelf, and new systems that were less hazardous to nuclear detonations—hence the rise of kinetic kill programs—came online.”
McGrew loved his assignment on Kwajalein and extended his two-year tour to three years. “I loved the environment to raise my kids in, and it was a wise move.” Apart from his work on the missile range, he became an avid scuba diver, organizing Kwajalein Scuba Club trips to Pohnpei and Chuuk. In 1975, he and 29 other Kwajalein divers checked 60 KSC air tanks onto a Continental Airlines flight, paying $5 per tank, and spent two weeks of diving the reefs and wrecks in those Micronesian states.
“We did the same trip again the next year in 1976,” he says. “The scuba club was very active—a lot of divers, and there were never enough tanks.”
In 1977, the Army assigned McGrew to Huntsville, Alabama, where he retired from the Army as a major, completing 20 years of service. It was the beginning of the Pentagon’s studies into methods of destroying incoming ICBMs through blunt impact instead of nuclear explosions: like hitting a bullet with a bullet, the Army says. One of those early studies, begun in 1977, was the Homing Overlay Experiment, and McGrew was brought aboard by Lockheed Corporation to assist. While the Army and its contractor teams performed deep dive studies on improving radar and computer abilities to discriminate enemy warheads—that is, identify warheads from decoys, penetration aids and debris while en route to their targets—the Army also began developing kinetic kill vehicles. By using rocket stages to launch an independently steerable, thruster-powered object guided by infrared optical guidance systems, the idea was that a KKV could collide head-on with a target, destroying it: no nuclear detonation needed.
The HOE project was the start of McGrew’s 18-year stint in KKV development with Lockheed, and the project brought him and his family back to Kwajalein Missile Range for a second tour. In three tests in 1983, the Air Force launched Minuteman ICBMs toward Kwajalein Atoll, and the Army’s HOE interceptors failed in each test to destroy the dummy warhead. “It was a challenging program” that used off-the-shelf technology, essentially, McGrew says. But on June 10, 1984, the date of the fourth and final test, the HOE’s 13-feet-wide umbrella skeleton wrapped the Minuteman re-entry vehicle in a concussive death hug with a closing speed of more than 6 km per second. McGrew and the HOE planners were elated.
“It was the first kinetic kill, and that was the start of Star Wars, according to President Reagan at the time,” McGrew tells me as we sit at anchor off Roi-Namur.
Formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars programs blossomed in the coming years, each fixated on different ways to destroy incoming warheads without the use of nuclear explosions. Some were fanciful for their time—think lasers and platforms bursting with KKVs in orbit around Earth—and some were more straightforward. McGrew moved on to a program grounded on past successes, the Exoatmospheric Re-Entry Interceptor Subsystem, which was a direct descendent of the HOE program and designed to kill ICBMs at long range, outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. On Jan. 29, 1991, the ERIS crew launched the 200-kilogram ERIS booster and KKV from Meck and scored a direct hit against a target Minuteman launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. McGrew looks fondly on that achievement: They had proven KKVs might work in the real world. “Fortunately, we were very lucky and got the first round off and also had a first-round kinetic kill hit,” he says, acknowledging the long road kinetic defense programs still had ahead of them.
A second intercept attempt in March 1992 tested the KKV’s ability to discriminate the correct warhead using its onboard infrared sensors but failed to destroy the target missile. Budget constraints forced an end to ERIS testing soon after, but the knowledge the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization gained on infrared seeking, onboard discrimination, KKV vector thrusting and more were transferred directly to the following—and current—generation of exo-atmospheric kinetic ABM systems: the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense. With 44 Ground-Based Interceptors deployed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg, the system is charged with protecting the United States from limited ICBM attacks from adversaries.
McGrew looks back fondly on his involvement in HOE and ERIS and his role in ushering the long-range kinetic system from infancy to deployment.
“We did a lot of work out here,” he told me, staring off at Meck Island as we sailed by. “A lot of important work.”
His favorite program, he later tells me, is THAAD, another kinetic ABM system with roots planted during the Reagan Star Wars years. The theater defense system was borne out of the High Endo-atmospheric Defense Interceptor program and designed to destroy medium- and long-range theater ballistic missiles primarily just inside the atmosphere. THAAD was McGrew’s last assignment with Lockheed. He worked as the mission director for a total of nine launches of the THAAD interceptor at White Sands before later system testing took place on Kwajalein Atoll, Wake Island and elsewhere.
“That was a very successful program,” he says. “And it’s operational now, along with the GBI in Alaska and Vandenberg. So, I’m fortunate to see two programs to their fulfillment, and that was 20 years with Lockheed.
“And it’s good that’s deployed,” he continues. “Because things in Korea and in other places have requirements for that system. And it’s nice to see that the Army is able to activate it and keep the Soldiers trained on it.”
The 13.5 years McGrew spent on Kwajalein Atoll left an indelible impression on him. He’s proud of the roles he had in testing critical ABM systems deployed today, earning many titles though the years. But he’s most proud of calling himself a father, husband and Scoutmaster, he says. Scouting was a way for him to spend time with his family, give back to the community and integrate into the local Marshallese community in ways most people can only imagine now. McGrew and scout leaders from Ebeye would join forces to organize massive, annual Boy Scout jamborees on Bigej, inviting the 500 Marshallese Boy Scouts living on Ebeye and the 30 Kwajalein Boy Scouts for a week-long adventure of cooking pigs in earth ovens and practicing scouting skills.
“Everybody loved to sail, fish and scuba dive,” he says. “But since I was a scout master and had two boys—one became a Life Scout, and one became an Eagle Scout—I enjoyed scouting.”
The fundraisers McGrew helped organize would pull in enough money from the Kwajalein community to send $25,000 checks to the Boy Scout leadership in Honolulu and buy Cadillacs for raffle winners. Yes, Cadillacs for raffle winners on Kwajalein—It was a different time. Other adventures included Boy Scout reef hikes from Ninji to Kwajalein during low-tides, before the causeway from Gugeegue to Ebeye was constructed.
He tells of catching so many marlins that he and his friends employed a clever safer way of continuing to fish them and release them back to the ocean: using the head of a mop, literally. It helps if he explains the quirky technique himself:
“I think I got about 28 marlin up next to the boat. I learned after about 10 of them that it was hard to get the hook out of them and hard to release them. So we went with what is called a mop head technique. You could actually buy a mop at the store and make three lures. And it didn’t have a hook. You just tied the 300-pound line around it and towed it, and it would splash up, and the marlin would hit it. It would hit the mop head like it’s a fish and try to kill it. And its beak would tangle into the mop head getting so tangled up that we were able to reel the marlin in—without a hook. Using that technique, we caught a lot of them safely. The mop head would stay attached to the beak and the big marlins would just walk on top of the water with the mop head behind the boat. The mop head would eventually break down in the water and come off the marlin’s beak. So that was a lesson learned on catching marlin and releasing them.”
A lot has changed on Kwajalein since McGrew first arrived 45 years ago. The Kwajalein Missile Range is now the Reagan Test Site, but it remains a critical test bed for the nation’s missile defense programs, the Air Force’s follow-on test shots of Minuteman III ICBMs and space surveillance and new foreign missile launch tracking. But in the world of missile defense, much of the range activity that kept scientists, engineers and Soldiers busy in earlier decades has moved to other national missile ranges, McGrew says. A population of more than 6,000 in the early 1970s has dropped to just more than 1,000 today. But while budgets are a function of the number of boots on the sand here, enjoying life on Kwaj and Roi is not.
“The lifestyle is the same,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful place to live and raise a family, to enjoy the natural environment to its fullest. It’s great to be able to get these experiences time and time again.”
As Paul motors me away from Cherokee so I can catch a flight back to Kwaj, Carl sits on the stern of the boat, flashes a thumbs up and says goodbye. I remember him saying this might be his last sailing adventure on Kwajalein Atoll. That partly saddens me, but I’m reminded he’s got plenty of other adventures ahead—plus five nights at Nell, the next destination for the Cherokee crew on their trip around the largest atoll in the world.
Jordan Vinson, for the Kwajalein Hourglass
If you recently moved to Kwajalein Atoll, you now live and work amid one of the planet’s largest lagoons, encircled by one of the planet’s largest coral atolls. Lying at the heart of the Ralik Chain (the western, or “sunset,” chain) of the Marshall Islands, Kwajalein Atoll sits at a point roughly equidistant to Honolulu, Japan and northeast Australia. It’s at least a 2,000-mile swim to the nearest significant landmass, which in our case happens to be Australia. You’re at eight degrees and some change, or about 500 miles north of the equator.
The atoll itself, like all 29 atolls comprising the RMI, is what remains of a shield volcano that once extended from the top of the Pacific Plate at the floor of the ocean up through the surface of the ocean. Born out of volcanic eruptions occurring thousands of feet below the Pacific Plate between 165 and 76 million years ago, this seamount grew and grew. Finally, when it peaked out of the surface of the ocean, it became an island, reaching the first transformative stage of atoll formation.
Exactly how far it extended above the water’s surface is hard to say. Did this island look like a mountain, like Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which tips the charts in the Pacific Ocean at more than 13,000 feet in height? Or did it resemble current-day Kosrae or Pohnpei, both of which reach just over 2,000 feet in height?
“We really just do not know,” says Dr. Curt Storlazzi, a research geologist and oceanography with the USGS’ Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. “Because the base of the atoll is 50-80 kilometers across, it could have been really big. We just don’t really know.”
Regardless of how high the island stuck out of the water in its pre-atoll state, it provided a large base close to the water’s surface for coral to latch onto and grow. That surface proximity is important. It is one of the most essential requirements for coral growth, providing cozy, nutrient-rich real estate close enough to the water’s surface to allow the coral animals to pull in energy from the sun, sustain themselves, grow and reproduce.
When did coral reefs first begin forming around this volcanic island? Dr. James Hein, a long-time USGS scientist specializing in marine mineral deposits, does have an answer: roughly 56 million years ago. From that point onward, individual coral colonies began to form along the perimeter of the island and grow into ever-greater colonies, eventually merging together around the island perimeter into a contiguous mass of coral animals, which we call a fringing reef. This is the second major transformational stage in atoll formation. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it can take 10,000 years for a fringing reef to form around an island. If those conditions remain favorable, the reef will continue expanding throughout the next 100,000 years, the agency states.
Contrasting with the expansion of the reef along its perimeter, the island landmass eventually began to undergo its own transformation. As the Pacific Plate slowly crawled across the Earth’s mantle, the position of the large Kwajalein volcanic island became more and more distant from its source of volcanism (aka a hot spot). It was this hot spot that had spewed the magma out of the planet’s mantle, through the lithosphere and into the ocean to form the volcanic seamount and island, says Storlazzi. The greater the distance from the hot spot, the more the local region of the Pacific Plate sank. And the more it sank, the more the volcanic island subsided downward and receded away from the reef around it.
As this large island subsided, a veritable moat of seawater filled the growing gap between the landmass and the reef, forming a barrier reef, the third major transformative step in the atoll formation process.
Fast forward until the landmass subsides completely below the ocean, and you’re left with a thin necklace of coral reef. This is an atoll, the final step in the process.
An obvious question does come up at this point: If the volcanic landmass subsides over time, why hasn’t the coral reef subsided along with it, pulling it below the ocean’s surface?
Actually, it has—sort of. What one has to remember is that a coral reef is vastly different from a volcanic seamount, chiefly in the fact that the reef is a conglomeration of living lifeforms. In an island’s case, if geologic forces pull it below the water or erode it away to the surface, that landmass has no choice but to go along for the ride. A reef, on the other hand, consists of millions and millions of coral animals, which may reproduce and continually grow, building on top of one another in an attempt to remain at the surface where the sun’s energy is strongest. Because it’s a living entity, the coral reef making up Kwajalein Atoll was able to react to its changing depth in the water over time. The rocks, sand and other stuff making up the volcanic island simply could not.
Currently, the seamount formerly comprising this island reaches a height that is only about 200 feet below sea level. Atop it lie layers of very old, dead coral colonies, which have subsided below about 160 feet, the greatest depth at which coral typically can survive. Atop those dead colonies lie the living coral colonies that have yet to subside below the rough 160-feet kill point. As the seamount continues to subside, bringing the coral along with it, new coral colonies continue to grow near the ocean surface, piling up on top of dead reef sections subsiding below. The process continues today.
Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
Berry Aviation’s flight operations crew on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll is the team dedicated to the critical job of shuttling commuter employees and cargo between the islands of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur.
Berry Aviation Site Manager Steve Simpson took a few moments with the Kwajalein Hourglass to explain the skills and experience it takes to fly as a contractor for this mission on the garrison.
“First, I want to explain we have extremely experienced flight crews out here and very stringent hiring requirements just off the bat to get in the door,” Simpson said.
All commercial pilots in the air today have the flight hours, licenses and certificates to fly commercially, of course. But to fly on USAG-KA, pilots need the highest-level FAA license available, one requiring 1,500 flight hours and heaps of classroom training. It’s not an easy feat to accomplish.
“We all have what is called an Airline Transport License,” he explained. “It is the highest form of FAA license a pilot can have, and it is required to fly as captain in the Metro here. A much higher license than a commercial license.”
Then comes three weeks of school learning the ins and outs of the aerial workhorse at the garrison: the Fairchild Metroliner twin-turboprop. Safety and emergency training, simulator training and FAA evaluations are included. Most pilots will then do this process all over again, this time for the UH-72 Lakota helicopter—another important airframe on the garrison.
Flying both fixed wing and rotary wing vehicles is a unique quality to the aviation operation on the garrison. Of the nine pilots currently on the aviation team, seven are dual rated, meaning they commercially fly both helicopters and airplanes. Only about six percent of all FAA-licensed pilots are certified to do this.
On USAG-KA, it adds up to a lot of flying for pilots.
“Our average flight time of our pilots is roughly about 6,000 to 7,000 hours,” Simpson said. “We have some pilots with over 10,000 hours. And we have roughly, about 450 years of aviation experience out here on Kwajalein. So, when you get in this plane … you can feel very comfortable.
“To be honest with you, everybody here is probably more experienced than the average airline crew,” he continued. “We’ve got some good folks with a lot of experience who have flown a lot of stuff from 757s all over the world and helicopters in combat – you name it – we’ve got some good folks.”
Long-time Kwaj resident and pilot, Helbert Alfred, is a good example. He’s been flying professionally on Kwajalein Atoll for nearly 20 years.
He saw his first airplane as a young boy on Ailuk Atoll. It was an eye-opening experience that would come to affect him the rest of his life.
“One morning I was out fishing with my grandfather, and the next thing we know –we hear this terrifying roar flying over the island,” Alfred explained. “And you can imagine how that is, you know, for a young kid in the outer islands. I was terrified and afraid, and I run into the bushes. And after the plane landed and the engines were killed, I realized these were people. … These were the Navy guys flying a seaplane, coming to Ailuk Atoll with supplies like C-rations, along with two scientists taking samples to measure, I guess, the radiation level on that atoll.”
Years later, in 1968, he would first set foot on an airplane when, as part of Majuro’s Assumption School marching band, he and his classmates were flown from Majuro to Kwajalein Atoll to play music during the traditional summer carnival held on Ebeye. The flight aboard the Douglas DC-4 was a nerve-wracking trip, with each bout of turbulence introducing thoughts of imminent demise – something Alfred can laugh about today. 14 years later, in 1982, he found himself behind the flight stick of a small Cessna, taking lessons for his pilot license. The act of flying – and the liberation and independence that come with it – was like a drug, and he’s been hooked ever since.
“To be able to defy the nature or the forces of gravity is just unbelievable,” Alfred said. “Like I mentioned earlier, for a guy who came from the outer islands, it’s just incredible.”
Alfred and the rest of the pilots owe it to the small army of mechanics who keep the planes running. Few people know how the Metro ticks better than Maintenance Manager and Mechanic Ed Kramer, a man with 33 years of experience working on fixed wings. He began coming out to Kwajalein in 2003, when Berry Aviation first brought out the Metroliner to the garrison. Since day one, he’s been involved with the Metro operation on Kwajalein. It’s a good plane to anchor a career on, he said.
“I think it’s a good looking airplane,” said Kramer. “I think it’s sleek. I love the engines – 1,000 horsepower in that tiny package. … When I got the opportunity to work on it I jumped on it, and I’ve been happy with it ever since. It’s fed my family; it’s even raised grandkids. So, I like this airplane.”
Kramer said there is one constant evil each mechanic on Kwajalein Atoll must confront on the job: corrosion. Adjusting to the harsh environment local to the Marshall presented a bit of a learning curve for the Metro operation in the initial years, but it is a reality with which the maintenance crew is now comfortable and experienced, he said.
“Having worked in Puerto Rico for several years, we had corrosion – but nothing like out here,” Kramer said. “It took us a while – a couple of years – to figure out a program that works. And as you can see, the airplanes look pretty good. Our program is working. We couldn’t do it without our Marshallese helpers. They rub down the airplane every night and put oil on them to make sure they don’t corrode. Plus the inspection program, which we’ve increased 150 times over the years, to the point where we’re inspecting it every two weeks in one form or another. Corrosion is the big deal.”
The fixed wing mechanic teams’ dedication to the Metroliners on the garrison does not go unnoticed, especially among the pilots who fly them.
“You know, I’m quite honored to have been able to fly with and work with a group of professionals. … I couldn’t ask for a better team,” Alfred said. “The mechanics are just great. For a place like Kwajalein, which is really isolated, they’re still able to put these airplanes in the air. It’s just unbelievable. I’ll trust my life to these guys.”
John Bobrowksi, an aircraft mechanic who has worked on the atoll since 1981, gives some of the credit of the aviation team’s success to the Metro’s no-nonsense design and build.
“I like the materials,” he said. “I like the metal. It’s a lot of steel, titanium, aluminum, magnesium. Not much plastic. Not too much computer. It’s just basic, good, solid, reliable.” An old school airplane.
Kramer has something to be proud of when he tallies up the number of flights performed, miles flown and passengers and cargo carried since 2003, when the Metro was brought out to the atoll.
“In all total, we have flown 44,371 flights as of Monday,” he said. “And basically 12,311 hours. You figure out the 50 miles to Roi and back that we fly and everything, we’ve put in well over 2.2 million miles of flying. We’ve carried 576,000 passengers and 35 million pounds of freight over the years. That’s about where we stand right now.
“These airplanes were built in 1987,” he continued. “So, you take a 2.5-ton pickup truck and come out here and fill it up every day, six times a day and fly it back and forth to Roi for 2 million miles – I don’t think you’ll find another vehicle out here that’s lasted that long.”
Like many operations on USAG-KA, the aviation team would not be able to perform were it not for its Marshallese workforce. They have been key to the fixed wing operation’s success over the years, Simpson said.
“One thing that is cool is we have 24 employees, 33 percent of which is RMI,” he explained. “Almost all of them are our longest tenured employees. We have, of course, our two Marshallese pilots – Helbert Alfred and Jeff Wase – who’ve both been here coming up on 20 years. We have two RMI in our supply room, who are critically important; three guys who work in our hangar; and an admin in our maintenance office. She’s kind of like an admin mom out here; she runs a pretty important show out here.”
Of course, the aviation team couldn’t do its job without the ceaseless help of the Airfield Operations crews on Roi and Kwajalein. They’re the folks on the garrison who perform flight manifesting, fueling, baggage and cargo handling, flight scheduling, air traffic monitoring and much more. Together, the pilots, mechanics, ground teams, administrative and supply staff work together day in and day out, takeoff after takeoff to perform the critical mission of the Metro flight on Kwajalein Atoll.
Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
The annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium took place last week in Huntsville, Alabama, hosting thousands of service members and professionals working in the fields of space, missile defense and cybersecurity.
Held Aug. 7-9 at the Von Braun Center in “Rocket City,” the conference featured speeches by leaders within the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Strategic Command. Panel discussions, scholarly research presentations and technology exhibits by defense contractor companies and select foreign military units were also part of the three-day event.
Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commanding general of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, addressed the symposium Aug. 7, commending the globe-spanning active duty and civilian workforce that make the SMDC mission possible.
Via a live video link at the conference center, the general did a question-and-answer session with 12 members of SMDC, each in a different geographic location, from Kuwait to Kwajalein. Along with presentations of short videos recorded with these personnel on site at the featured far-flung SMDC posts, Dickinson and his team described how individuals and their skillsets contribute to the force and how SMDC accomplishes its broad range of space and global missile defense missions.
One of the videos Dickinson called up for symposium attendees featured SMDC Space Officer Capt. Wojciech Stachura. At a sunny, ocean-side location on Roi-Namur, Stachura explained the importance of SMDC’s Reagan Test Site to American missile defense and space operations.
“Today I am here at the Kwajalein Atoll, home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, also known as RTS,” Stachura said in the video. “RTS is operated by Army personnel, government civilians, technical support contractors and scientists from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. We have over 40 years of experience supporting missile testing and space operations. RTS conducts continuous operations in support of the U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Air Force space programs and the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, as well as other government and DOD organizations.
“Operations on Kwajalein Atoll offer many advantages,” the space officer told the crowd. “The austere location helps minimize the inherent risk and safety concerns involved in launch operations. And its proximity to the equator and vast open areas make it very efficient at conducting rocket launches to a wide range of orbits. The Reagan Test Site is, and will continue to be, a significant asset for the U.S. Army.”
While Dickinson was one of the key speakers at the symposium, he shared the stage with plenty of other high-profile Pentagon leaders in the space and missile defense community.
In an Aug. 7 speech at the symposium, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, highlighted the importance of vigorous investment in space-based sensors to counter accelerating offensive threats from China and Russia.
“You can’t call them our friends if they’re making weapons that can destroy the United States of America,” he told the crowd.
Radars like Cobra Dane on Shemya Island in Alaska, ALTAIR on Roi-Namur and Joint Tactical Ground Station sites in Japan, Germany and elsewhere are critical to the nation’s new foreign missile and rocket launch duties. But Hyten said ground-based radars’ line-of-sight limitations could be overstepped with a globe-spanning constellation of dependable yet affordable sensors that are parked in low earth and dedicated to watching for and tracking hostile launches from boost to impact.
“There is not enough islands in the world to build radars on to see all the threats to be able to characterize the threats,” said Hyten. “You just can’t get there from here, so the only place to go to do that is a place where the U.S. is actually strongest and technology is there to do it, and that’s in space. We have to move into space.”
The point, the symposium speakers explained, is to improve the lethality of American missile defense systems like the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense in the U.S. and systems abroad in theater like deployed Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and Patriot batteries, as well as sea-based Aegis systems on missile destroyers and Aegis Ashore sites in Romania, Poland and—in the future—Japan.
Without the necessary sensor infrastructure online, the mission of missile defense would be entirely different, Hyten said. It was a point he hammered on, saying, STRATCOM needs “sensors first, shooters second, capacity third. … If you don’t have the sensors, then the other two really don’t matter.”
At a time of widely reported Chinese and Russian advances in non-ballistic hypersonic weaponry development, a constellation of enhanced sensors designed to detect and track launches early in flight could significantly aid America’s defense against these superfast vehicles, according to some analysts in the missile defense community.
“The most important thing to do in the missile defense business is making sure you can see and characterize the threat,” Hyten told the Symposium crowd. “If you can’t see and characterize the threat, I don’t care what kind of shooter you have. There is nothing you can do about it. So the most important thing is as you look at all the threats that are coming together, hypersonics, etc.—is that we have to be able to see that threat.”
A duo of missile tracking satellites collectively known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System was put into orbit in 2009 and is still active, but the system is used primarily as missile test launch assets. Another Air Force multi-satellite network, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), is now emplaced in orbit and can currently detect and track launches.
But, according to Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the existing capabilities are by no means future proof.
They are, “exquisitely capable, very expensive, very vulnerable systems that were designed and deployed in an era where we really didn’t have any space adversaries,” Griffin told the symposium crowd.
The timeline to build, launch and validate a cheaper, more advanced and hardier system will depend on collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the MDA, the release of the government’s anticipated Missile Defense Review and, of course, congressional approval.
Also part of the symposium’s three days of events were discussions on ways to improve sharing missile defense intelligence with U.S. allies; renewed Congressional effort to authorize funding for development of a space-based interceptor system capable of striking down missiles around the world in their boost phase; and what the proposed Space Force might look like.
Hyten had this to say about the Space Force proposition.
“You’ve seen the Congress of the United States pass a law that says we have to go look at developing a Space Corps inside the United States Air Force to figure out how to do that,” said Hyten. “And we have reports to Congress that are due back this month, talking about that. You see Congress talking about standing up a sub-unified command for space now. You see the president of the United States calling for a Space Force. …
“If you take one step back and you look at all the things leading up to that, they all say the following: We have a threat in space; space is a warfighting domain; we have to treat it like a warfighting domain. That’s it, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So as we do all this, we’re going to be in a much better position as a nation.”
Photos and contributions to a Wall Street Journal feature on cash availability in the Marshall Islands.
Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
The roots to Roi-Namur’s critical role in American military radar applications lie with TRADEX. Here’s the story.
In the late 1950s, the Navy was ready to begin mothballing the naval base at Kwajalein. The last round of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, Hardtack I, had drawn to a close, and negotiations with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s would, indirectly, prohibit further atomic testing in the archipelago. With the island’s critical logistics role in supporting the nuclear campaigns in the northern atolls closing, the Navy slated Kwajalein for abandonment the next year.
Then Nike Zeus came to the rescue .
The base got a new lease on life when personnel with the Army Rocket and Guided Missile Agency, Bell Telephone Laboratories and Western Electric Co. poured over maps, looking for the ideal place to build and test America’s first ABM system: Nike Zeus.
Kwajalein, was ideal, planners agreed, because of its modern infrastructure: An airport and pier, new housing and recreational facilities and more already existed on the island. But more importantly, it lay far enough from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to allow the Air Force to test launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at full range. On the receiving end, the Nike Zeus missile and radar suite could be built up on the island for full-scale intercept testing of ICBM-class targets.
But what about Roi?
In response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik and the R7 Semyorka ICBM-class missile, Eisenhower’s secretary of defense Neil McElroy established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now known as DARPA) in 1958, the same year the Navy was planning to shutter Kwajalein. ARPA was assembled with the purpose of coordinating America’s missile programs and rally them against Soviet advances in rocketry and satellite development.
One of the top concerns at ARPA was how little American scientists and the DOD knew about the physics and phenomenology of ballistic missiles as they re-enter the planet’s atmosphere. To gather this data, the organization established a re-entry measurements projects called Project PRESS—the acronym meaning Pacific Range Electromagnetic Signature Studies—and put Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, itself only seven years old, in charge.
But where could these scientists and engineers set up an outpost to study ICBM warhead re-entries at full range? Kwajalein, of course.
Because the Air Force was planning frequent Atlas shots to Kwajalein Atoll as part of Nike Zeus testing, ARPA and Lincoln Lab could count on plenty of targets of opportunity to gather the data they were looking for. To gather this re-entry data, the PRESS team would be able to use the Nike-Zeus Discrimination Radar and Target Track Radars on Kwajalein.
But there was the need for a separate radar dedicated solely to the Project PRESS focus on phenomenology studies. That radar would eventually take the name of Target Resolution and Discrimination Experiment (TRADEX). Interestingly, a bit of a fight sprung up between Team ARPA/Lincoln Lab and Team ARGMA/Bell Labs about where to put this new sensor. ARPA and Lincoln Laboratory had chosen the North end of Kwajalein, but Bell Labs—the technical director for Nike Zeus—was concerned about TRADEX’s radio frequency interfering with the Nike Zeus radars. ARPA’s and Lincoln Lab’s attempts to prove there would be no such interference fell on deaf ears.
Forced to take TRADEX elsewhere, ARPA and Lincoln Lab’s attention soon drifted northward, to the conjoined islets of Roi and Namur, where the Japanese had built an airstrip and piers and docks for servicing submarines during WWII. At 419 acres in size, it was big enough for the Project Press mission, and it was far enough away at 43 miles distance to alleviate any concerns Bell Labs might have about radio interference. Roi-Namur, was the solution.
There were, of course, a few logistical downsides to choosing Roi-Namur. The infrastructure on the island had been left to rot since 1946, turning Roi-Namur into a jungle ghost town in the passing years. All of the Japanese facilities were, of course, destroyed, and no airplanes could land on an air strip swallowed in overgrowth. To get there, PRESS planners and Army Corps of Engineers staff were forced to make the trips up to the islet in tugboats. Still, the teams would make progress.
The Corps, which had already been hard at work Kwajalein on the Nike Zeus project, sent equipment and men to Roi to perform vibration and seismic tests on soil around the island to pinpoint the best location for TRADEX. A few months later, the jungle overgrowth on the airstrip was cleared away, and one of the Navy’s Grumman HU16D Albatrosses landed on the airstrip. Lt. Col. Ken Cooper of ARPA joined Lincoln Laboratory’s Glen Pippert, Leo Sullivan and Bill Ward on a final preconstruction tour of the island. They confirmed the location of TRADEX to be the north point of Namur.
By the start of 1961, Corps crews were on Roi-Namur to begin construction. They and employees of RCA—the subcontractor to Lincoln Laboratory on the TRADEX build—lived aboard a rehabilitated barracks ship, APL-24, which was moored near the long-since-demolished Jackaroo Club (just southwest of the terminal).
Interestingly, while the TRADEX technical facilities and office spaces were under construction, onsite PRESS staff had no choice but to adapt and use what they could find. The two-story Japanese bunker near the intersection of Copra Road and TRADEX Road was renovated, becoming the first Project Press office.
Despite the logistical and environmental challenges on the remote, overgrown jungle island, the Army Corps of Engineers, RCA, ARPA and Lincoln Laboratory banded together and had a world-class research radar ready to track ICBMs in a little over a year.
During the spring of 1962, the radar powered on. And on June 26, 1962, TRADEX successfully acquired and tracked the first ICBM launched at Kwajalein Atoll, picking it up in the vicinity of Hawaii with its large antenna and high power. In the series of Nike Zeus intercept tests revving up at Kwajalein and Vandenberg, TRADEX would play a major role in helping ARPA and Lincoln Laboratory understand the physics of ICBM re-entry. In subsequent programs, it would be crucial in helping the organizations understand and improve radar discrimination—picking out re-entering warheads from decoys and other threat cloud clutter.
More than 55 years after that first intercept tracking success, TRADEX remains a regular workhorse at the Kiernan Reentry Measurements Site, and Lincoln Laboratory still has a strong presence at the sensor. Upgraded in several stages throughout the years, TRADEX still performs its classic ICBM re-entry acquisition and tracking role. But outside of re-entry test windows, you can see the radar busy with other tasks like acquiring and tracking new foreign launches and satellite orbit transfers and deep-space object tracking as part of U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance Network activities.
LEFT: TRADEX under construction in the 1961-1962 time frame. RIGHT: Modern configuration of TRADEX today.
SOURCES: “Project History.” ABM Research and Development at Bell Labs; “History of Lincoln Laboratory at the Reagan Test Site.” John Nelson and Kenneth Roth, Lincoln Laboratory Journal; “The History of the Kiernan Re-entry Measurements Site.” Michael Holtcamp, Kwajalein Missile Range Directorate, Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command, Huntsville, Alabama.
Jordan Vinson, for U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command
U.S. ARMY GARRISON KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Republic of the Marshall Islands — In a brief address and question-and-answer session last month, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s Technical Center director highlighted a host of recent Reagan Test Site mission achievements and forecasted busier missions to come.
Director Thomas Webber hosted the special town hall May 16 at the Kwajalein High School Multi Purpose Room for the Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians and contractors who operate RTS and guests.
The latest major range operation, the Air Force Global Strike Command Glory Trip 224 Minuteman III launch and re-entry, was representative of Kwajalein Atoll’s position at the tip of the spear in ensuring the strategic deterrence of the United States, he said.
“For these (Glory Trip) missions, we’re testing our strategic offensive capabilities to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles,” said Webber. “That is the strategic deterrent that brought down the wall.”
The planned upgrades of the nation’s fleet of more than 400 nuclear-tipped ICBMs likely means a frenetic mission future for RTS personnel and instrumentation, he added.
The Air Force is “going to be improving and modernizing them and going to the next generation,” he said. “What’s going to happen is there’s going to be increased up-tempo at some point to be able to test those systems.”
There is more to the Technical Center than Glory Trip missions. An Army laboratory designated by the government to execute leading edge science and technology, scientists, engineers and technicians at the Technical Center work on an array of advanced projects, sometimes in conjunction with other government labs like Sandia National Laboratories.
Asked by USAG-KA Commander Col. James DeOre to explain what else the center works on, Webber summed up the organization’s focus in three particular areas: directed energy, hypersonic weapons and low earth orbit satellite development for tactical communications on the battlefield.
Laser and microwaves weapons are now a reality, Webber said. Recognizing the low cost-per-kill quality of high-powered lasers in the battle space, the Pentagon has poured considerable research and development into using directed energy as an alternative to expensive kinetic kill vehicles.
Small, low earth orbit satellite development is another of the laboratory’s focal points. The Army has leaned on the Technical Center to develop and produce low cost, pint-sized imaging and communications satellite platforms that may be employed as alternatives to traditional large military communications satellites that live in geostationary orbit.
The research and development initiative that might be of most interest to Kwajalein Atoll is hypersonic weaponry. Coming in two forms—cruise missiles or missile-launched, maneuverable re-entry vehicles—“hypersonics” can fly at speeds of Mach 5 and above, along a non-ballistic trajectory, making them extremely difficult to intercept with current anti-ballistic missile defenses like America’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. China and Russia are each testing their own versions of hypersonic weapons. In the meantime, American progress in the field continues at the Technical Center and in other national laboratories as interest at the Pentagon revs up, Webber said.
“We [the Technical Center] did the first U.S. successful execution of a hypersonic weapon,” Webber told the crowd. “So we’re very involved in helping the Navy execute for a program of record to actually field hypersonics. The Army is now getting much more involved. We have an undersecretary of the Army now, a vice chief of staff of the Army, very interested in hypersonics.”
Because of Kwajalein Atoll’s traditional geographic advantages, future tests of American hypersonic prototypes may likely occur, in some manner, at the RTS range, Webber said.
“There’s not a lot of places that the nation has to test hypersonics,” he said. “Kwajalein’s the place because of the long fly outs, the fast, long flying trajectories.” It is this quality, of course, that made Kwajalein Atoll, beginning in the early 1960s as part of the “Western Range,” the premiere test bed for full scale testing of the United States’ developing ICBM programs like Atlas, Polaris and later the Minuteman and the Peacekeeper.
While future flight testing of upgraded Minuteman IIIs and first generation hypersonic weapons may occupy RTS in the years to come, there is still plenty of work to do in the near term, Webber said. He pointed to a PowerPoint slide densely populated with many different mission types throughout 2018. From the Jan. 31 test of the Navy’s Aegis Ashore interceptor at Kauai, Hawaii, to NASA’s springtime launches of experiment sounding rockets, to two back-to-back Global Strike GT re-entries, range customers have put RTS through its paces, Webber said.
Being able to maintain a frenetic range operation schedule in the lead up to, during and after a major garrison logistics and support contract changeover is impressive, he said, acknowledging the challenges in adjusting to the new contract arrangement on the atoll.
“It makes executing this very difficult,” Webber said. “And that’s why it’s critical that all of you, and everybody across the community here, continues to play the vital role that they play and be a participant. And making sure that we’re finding ways to execute the mission. I know it’s challenging.
“I wanted to make sure that you all understood how critically important you are to executing this mission,” he added. “There’s a vital role in the garrison place, and there’s a vital role on the range side. But those don’t work by themselves. Those only work if you’re in unison and helping each other accomplish that and be successful. … All of you are critical in being able to make that mission happen, whether you’re on the range side or you’re on the garrison side of the house. It’s going to take all of you, and it’s going to take teamwork and collaboration and support across all echelons to make sure that we’re maintaining that capability.”
In no other type of mission setting could this be more accurate than in range operations conducted by the Missile Defense Agency, which will always be a part of RTS, Webber said. These are missions involving many land, sea and space-based sensors; many target missiles of all classes; personnel dispersed through a wide geographic area; and several interceptors.
Tests of systems like the Army’s high profile, truck-mounted Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and MDA’s growing Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, are good examples. Just last year, the FTG-15 test of the GMD system proved both the capability of the system and the expertise and work ethic of the RTS and garrison workforce, he said. Missions like this in the future will again rely on the full support of the garrison and range communities.
“That was the first-ever ICBM launch from Kwajalein Atoll,” Webber said. “It was launched off of Meck Island. So that was a major undertaking, to demonstrate that our Ground-based Midcourse Defense System could work against an incoming ICBM. … It was a highly successful test. That test—while the interceptor came out of Vandenberg—would not have happened if it weren’t for the Reagan Test Site and the Kwajalein Atoll. You can’t do those kinds of engagements anywhere else in the world. This is a national strategic asset out here. So, those test missions are extremely important.”
While high profile intercept tests, flight tests and ICBM re-entries garner a lot of attention, Webber reminded the crowd of the vitally important national security missions that occur every day from the control rooms of the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site radars on Roi-Namur. The size, quality and power of the radars on RTS, paired with Kwajalein Atoll’s geographic location, allow for easy recognition, identification and tracking of missile and rocket flights that launch from rocket pads over the horizon in the Asia Pacific region.
When an Asia-Pacific adversary launches a rocket into space and deploys, for instance, a new military imaging satellite into orbit, the Pentagon, U.S. Strategic Command and the intelligence agencies often want radar images of the satellite and data on its orbital period. KREMS can do that, as well as search for and help identify random junk in orbit as part of the radars’ support role in the Air Force Space Surveillance Network.
“We’re keeping tabs on a lot of stuff that’s flying around in space right now,” Webber concluded. “And we do that to keep catalogs updated so that we know where stuff is [in orbit] to help support conjunction analysis to make sure that things don’t run into our critical assets that are in space. That it doesn’t run into manned space missions that flying up; that it doesn’t run into when you’re doing an interceptor missions. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t have issues with hitting debris and other things. Keeping track of that is very important. Our radars help contribute to and support that mission.”
A former Kwajalein resident, Webber spent five years working on the range, managing range flight safety from control rooms on land and on the U.S.A.V. Worthy ship. Every trip back to sunny Kwajalein Atoll is a joy, he said.
Interview by Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
Japanese Ambassador to the RMI Hideyuki Mitsuoka was on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll last week to work on bilateral issues involving Japan and the RMI and to also visit with Japanese citizens who flew to Kwajalein Atoll to honor the Japanese service members who perished during WWII battles in the archipelago. Mitsuoka took a few minutes to talk with the Kwajalein Hourglass about his job in Majuro and diplomacy between Japan, the RMI and the United States.
Kwajalein Hourglass: Why is it important for Japan to maintain a strong diplomatic link with the Marshall Islands?
Ambassador Hideyuki Mitsuoka: This is a very important question for us. I think there are several reasons for that. For example … this year marks the 30th anniversary for the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. Our historical ties, however, date back more than 100 years. And we have enjoyed and developed a cooperative relationship over a long time. And also, Japan has been an active and consistent developmental partner of the RMI since the 1980s. So, I believe that Japan’s development assistance in the RMI has greatly contributed to the development of the RMI.
This is the first reason. And secondly, the area you see around the RMI is a good fishing ground for tuna and bonito for Japan. … About 80 percent of consumption of tuna and bonito in Japan comes from these areas of sea around the Pacific island countries, of course, including the RMI. This is the second reason. I think the third reason, in addition to the bilateral relations between our two countries, Japan and the RMI have a cooperative relationship in the international arena, such as in the United Nations. And the RMI always supports Japan’s position in international society. For instance … RMI supports Japan’s aspirations to seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
HG: What are a few of the most important bilateral projects the RMI and Japan are working on together?
AHM: Currently, we are working on a project of the installation of a solar electricity system in Ebeye. In November last year, their minister of foreign affairs and trade, John Silk, and I signed an exchange of notes for the project. … I hope that this project will greatly contribute to the RMI’s national energy goal, for renewable energy to cover 20 percent of domestic power demand in the RMI by 2020. Also, we’re a country working on youth exchanges, such as middle school students and high school and college level. Also the revitalization of sister cities between Majuro and Kawai-cho, Kawai Town in Nara Prefecture.
HG: Japan is a major financial and capital donor to the Marshall Islands. Last November, for example, you oversaw the donation of $65,000 to Majuro’s Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM) canoe and outrigger sailing construction and education school. The grant was funded through Japan’s Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects (GGP). Can you tell us more about GGP and other grant programs Japan maintains for the RMI?
AHM: Japan has mainly carried four types of assistance in the RMI. First is project type grant aid implemented through JICA: Japan International Cooperation Agency. The size of one project is the largest amount of any of Japan’s assistance programs, typically around 10 million U.S. dollars. An example for a project type grant aid is Majuro Hospital and the fish base at Uliga Dock in Majuro. Another type of assistance is economic and social development grant aid, called non-project type grant aid, which is basically the procurement of products and equipment that we give to the government of the RMI.
The [Japanese] embassy is in charge of coordinating, and the size of the grant amount is usually one-to-three million U.S. dollars. In the RMI, examples are heavy equipment, desalination units, waste metal compressors and plastic compressors at the recycling center in Majuro. The third is GGP [Japan’s Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects]. This is smaller size assistance available for local governments, schools, hospitals, local government, energy use and others for the improvement of the social wellbeing of people at the grassroots level. In principal, the grant amount is up to around 90,000 U.S. dollars. Since 1995, over 141 projects of this type have been granted in the RMI. The fourth type, other types or programs conducted by JICA, are technical cooperation, such as providing training opportunities in Japan [and JICA volunteers in the RMI]. Currently 17 JICA volunteers are working for various places, such as elementary schools, Majuro Hospital, MINTA, the EPA and so on. Among them, 16 volunteers are in Majuro, and one volunteer is in Ebeye; he works for Ebeye Elementary School as a mathematics teacher. Usually they spend two years on assignment.
HG: Does Japan funnel any money or capital assistance to the outer atoll communities like Mili Atoll or Jaluit Atoll?
AHM: As far as grant aid to the outer atolls, outer islands, Japan has implemented almost 80 projects through GGP since 1995. These projects were implemented not just in Mili and Jaluit, but also in more than 20 atolls, such as Ailinglaplap, Namorik, Aur, Arno, Ebon and so on.
HG: How many Marshallese citizens, or persons of Marshallese heritage, live in the nation of Japan?
AHM: We have Japanese government statistics. According to the statistics, there are 11 Marshallese citizens living in Japan, and I understand that most of them married Japanese people. Just 11.
HG: What are some of the most important policies or agendas Japan and the United States need to work on?
AHM: I can say that, you know, Japan and United States are strong allies, sharing basic values and strategic interests with the Japan-U.S. security arrangement at the core. This is a very important arrangement between our two countries. So, under such a strong alliance, our two countries are closely working together and sharing roles and responsibilities not only in bilateral relations, but also in regional issues in Asia-Pacific and global issues, such as human security, human rights, climate change, disaster risk reduction and disarmament and non-proliferation [of nuclear weapons]. Moreover, I think the cooperative relationship between our two countries in the international society is getting more important.
HG: North Korean ballistic missile testing and, of course underground nuclear warhead tests, are concerns common to Japan and the United States. What can you say about the importance of the Reagan Test Site, here on Kwajalein Atoll, to Japan’s strategy in dealing with North Korea’s ambitions toward nuclear-armed ICBMs?
AHM: As you know, North Korea has launched missiles flying over Japan several times. And it has said it would launch missiles aiming at the area of sea around Guam. So North Korea has become a serious threat, not only to Japan and the U.S., but also to the whole international society. So, I think the RMI is located in a place between Guam and Hawaii and occupies an important position in terms of the U.S. strategy. This is my personal view. I personally recognize that that the Reagan Test Site plays an important role in terms of playing a deterrence power against North Korea.
HG: Thousands of Japanese Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen died during WWII fighting here on Kwajalein Atoll, in the greater Marshall Islands and in neighboring countries. The Japanese War-Bereaved Families Association (Nippon izokukai) is the organization that flies living relatives of those fallen warriors to visit their graves on these islands in which they perished while fighting for their nation. Can you tell us a little about the role this organization plays in honoring the legacy of Japan’s lost service members, and can you tell us what your office’s interaction is with the organization when it visits the RMI?
AHM: This organization is a nation-wide incorporate foundation chartered by the Japanese government. And its main services consist of a memorial service of the war dead, welfare promotion for the war bereaved families and collection of the remains of the ware dead. So, the Japanese government … supports the foundation by consigned government services and providing financial assistance. Therefore, our embassy extends possible assistance to [the association’s] visits. … The organization has played an important role in honoring the legacy of Japan’s lost service members. Specifically, in order to honor the legacy of Japan’s lost service members, war bereaved families visit many places, many countries, like the Marshall Islands. They visit the Marshall Islands once or twice per year to conduct a memorial service. Other than the Marshall Islands, war bereaved families [visit] many places, such as China, Russia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Palua, the Federates States of Micronesia, the Solomon Islands and so on. Not only to the RMI.
HG: How are Japan and the RMI partnering up against climate change?
AHM: We recognize that climate change is an issue that requires immediate action by international community. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change conference of parties has been a pivot for active discussions to reduce greenhouse emissions on the global level, every year since 1995. Japan has actively participated in negotiations on climate change. In December 2015, the Paris Agreement—you know, this was a very important agreement—was adopted as a new international framework for greenhouse gas reduction in the post-2020 period. Actually, Japan has been working with other countries, including the RMI, to develop guidelines for the Paris Agreement realize effective greenhouse reductions by all parties.
The RMI, as you know, is a low-lying nation which is very vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. And they have been raising this issue with great eagerness. … The area of climate change was one of seven areas decided for enhance cooperation between Japan and Pacific island countries, including the RMI At the seventh Pacific Island Leaders Meeting, which was held in Japan in 2015. Climate change is most likely to continue to be one of the very focused areas of cooperation between Japan and Pacific island countries at the eighth Pacific Island Leaders Meeting, which will take place in Japan in mid-May this year. This meeting is a summit-level meeting between Japan and 14 Pacific island countries. So, leaders from these countries will come to Japan to discuss many common issues. This summit-level meeting has been held every three years since 1997. So, this year Japan will host the eighth meeting in Fukushima. This is a very, very important conference between Japan and the 14 Pacific island countries.
HG: Lastly, if residents here had seven days to spend in Japan, what cities or prefectures do you recommend they spend their time in?
AHM: If you visit Japan, for the first time, I would recommend you to travel the so-called Golden Coast, which means Tokyo to Osaka, by bullet train. You can stay in Tokyo for two days. As you know, Tokyo is a very unique city. Why? That city has two faces: One face is a very modern face; the other is a very historical face. It’s very unique. Of course, this is the capital city of Japan and center of politics. And then, after Tokyo, you can go to Hakone. Hakone is very famous for its hot springs. So you can experience hot springs there.
After that, you can move to Osaka. On the way to Osaka, you can see Mt. Fuji and Haman-ko—Like Hamana. And then you can get to Osaka. After that, you go to Kyoto and Nara and back to Osaka. You would go back to Kwajalein from Osaka. This is the typical course for the beginner.