Hawaii is still a target: New S.T.A.R.T. Treaty a small step toward nuclear disarmament

By Max Gray

HONOLULU—“We are as prepared as any state could be for any type of catastrophic event,” says Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anthony, speaking for the office that oversees State Civil Defense. 

They are reassuring words, but with a nuclear disaster ongoing at the Fukushima reactor in Japan, international attention is focused on the role of nuclear power and on the possible safety threat these older reactors pose. As of yet, Hawaii has not experienced any dangerous spikes in radiation from Fukushima, but the risks from civilian nuclear power may not be our biggest concern.

In today’s volatile world, a world of Kim Jong-ils, and suspicious packages, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe weighs heavily on the mind. Are the islands truly protected from dangers originating overseas?

The New S.T.A.R.T. Treaty is a piece of federal legislation that aims to make everyone safer from nuclear weapons. Signed into law on February 2 by President Barack Obama, the treaty between Russia and the United States calls for a measurable drawdown of each country’s nuclear arsenal. Though it is an international agreement, it is sure to have a unique affect on those American states with a large military presence. 

“If we were in any kind of major war, Hawaii would be a major target because we have the biggest naval base in the world here, and we certainly have many nuclear weapons here in the islands,” says Jon Van Dyke, a professor of international law at the University of Hawaii. 

“If we were in any kind of major war, Hawaii would be a major target.”

The local impacts of New S.T.A.R.T. may be difficult to ascertain so early in the disarmament process. However, in the event of a military threat from overseas, Van Dyke points out, the islands may be playing for higher stakes than the rest of the nation. His claim is reinforced by sheer numbers. U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), based near Pearl Harbor, oversees the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines in the Asia/Pacific. Its personnel amount to roughly one-fifth that of the entire U.S. military. An upstart nation like North Korea that hoped to challenge Washington D.C. would be unable to ignore Honolulu. Especially if PACOM kept an unspecified number of strategic nukes at its disposal.

Lieutenant Colonel April Cunningham, speaking on behalf of the Department of Defense, will not go so far. “It is the policy of the United States to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons in any general or specific location,” Cunningham says in a statement. 

Michael D. Jones is an Associate Professor of Physics at UH Manoa but he has studied the nuclear arms issue since he first developed an interest in it 25 years ago. “New S.T.A.R.T. is a small step in the right direction,” Jones says. “It certainly affects the Asia/Pacific region because of the potential for North Korea to be a threat. One serious issue would be missile defense testing and the possibility that North Korea might launch a missile towards Alaska.”

Over the past two decades, a series of arms-control agreements have cut the number of nukes from 12,000 down to around 2,000. New S.T.A.R.T., which went into effect on February 5, further limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads and calls for regularly scheduled arms inspections. Each side will cut their nuclear warhead delivery systems—bombers, missile launchers and submarines—by about 50 percent. Each superpower agrees to dismantle excess nukes over a period of seven years with the option of extending the treaty’s terms by an additional five years.

Regarding specific plans for disarmament, Cunningham says that “there are no declared New S.T.A.R.T. Treaty facilities in Hawaii. The dismantlement of nuclear warheads only occurs at specialized facilities on the ‘mainland.’”

Declared inspection facilities include Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Dyess in Texas, and Travis Air Force Base in California. No specific submarine bases or ICBM silos are identified in documents readily available to the public.

Critics may complain that the treaty pertains to only two nuclear superpowers. However, New S.T.A.R.T. sets a precedent that the North Koreas and international terrorists of the world must heed.

“None of the other nuclear powers will take disarmament seriously,” Jones says, “unless the U.S. and Russia indicate they are serious about it.”

It is hard to say how quickly the effects of the treaty will be felt overseas. Cunningham, speaking for the Department of Defense, has the final word: “The Obama administration is committed to the long-term goal of safely eliminating nuclear weapons globally. But it rejects a timeline for disarmament, recognizing that the conditions do not now exist to disarm safely and will be difficult to bring into being.”