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The impact of Ballistic Missile Defence on the Pacific

‘Militarisation of Space and Missile Defence Systems’ panel at the NGO Seminar during the UN Asia-Pacific Regional Disarmament Conference, 29 March 2001, Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The previous speakers have outlined the negative impact of the United States Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system and its destabilising effects globally. I am going to focus on the place where it has an actual physical impact - Kwajalein, in the Marshall islands. The wider Pacific Ocean has long been used by the colonial powers as a testing ground for missiles, a place for returning space missions to splash down, and a place for incoming space debris to be dumped - the MIR spacecraft being the most recent example of that. But Kwajalein has been specifically targeted for US missile tests, including those for BMD.

In 1947 the US government become the administrator of the Marshall Islands. They promised to protect the people, their island homes and surrounding ocean; and to assist them to move towards independence.

Instead they exploded sixty seven nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands - at ground level, at sea level, and in the atmosphere.

The people of the Marshall islands were used as guinea pigs in the US government’s nuclear weapons testing programme. They were relocated from their homes on Bikini and Enewetak atolls “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars”. Some islands were completely obliterated in the nuclear bomb blasts, some were so contaminated that people will never be able to live there again, nor gather food and other resources from the surrounding ocean.

The Marshallese have suffered appalling damage to their health from the US nuclear weapons tests, and genetic damage which will ensure serious health problems will continue through each succeeding generation. Twenty out of the twenty two populated atolls in the Marshall Islands were contaminated either directly by, or from fallout from, the US nuclear bombs.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 1958 the US developed a military base on Kwajalein and Wake Island and turned two thirds of Kwajalein lagoon into a missile testing range. That missile testing range has been more involved in the development of nuclear weapons and the US nuclear arsenal than any other place on earth. The development of MX, Minuteman, Trident and other systems all involved the Kwajalein missile testing range.

So that they could use Kwajalein as the point of impact for missiles fired from the US mainland and other US bases in the Pacific, the US armed forces rounded up people from islands in the lagoon and moved them onto Ebeye. Ebeye has an area of approximately 66 acres - it is a very small island and currently more than 12,000 people are crammed onto it. It is considered by the people to be a concentration camp.

I will speak about the negative effects of the BMD missile tests on the people’s health in a moment, but first to Kwajalein itself. As you can see from this map, the Marshall Islands cover a large area of the Pacific. Kwajalein lagoon is the biggest in the world.

As you can see from the printouts circulating, the US Army is rather proud of the missile range, they describe it as “a premiere asset within the Department of Defence Major Range and Test Facility. The unquestioned value of KMR to the MRTFB is based upon its strategic geographical location, unique instrumentation, and unsurpassed capability to support ballistic missile testing and space operations”. They have pictures of palm trees and of rockets taking off against Pacific postcard views. Further information about the missile range can be obtained from the KMR website.

As well as missile testing, the Kwajalein missile range is part of the US Space Surveillance Network; and there are several rocket and missile launch pads on islands in the lagoon. A variety of weird US experiments have taken place there, including the current Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle tests for the National Missile Defence system.

As the previous speakers have said, BMD has two elements - National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD). NMD, if deployed, is supposed to shield the US from a limited long-range missile attack; TMD is supposed to neutralise an attack on US armed forces or their allies by destroying incoming short-range missiles. Kwajalein is the major test site for both NMD and TMD.

As with the nuclear weapons testing programme, the missile testing programme has also negatively impacted on the health of the Marshallese. When missile testing is going on the people on Ebeye are not permitted to use the lagoon or the islands in it to gather food. They have to survive on tinned food, rice and bread - this has created a serious problem of malnutrition. Missiles fired into Kwajalein lagoon have not carried live nuclear warheads, but they have been weighted with depleted uranium which has caused radioactive contamination to parts of the lagoon. The electromagnetic radiation released by the massive radar tracking installations at Kwajalein has also had harmful health consequences - people living around those radar installations have the highest incidence of cataracts in the world.

In 1983 the Marshallese were co-erced into signing a Compact of Free Association (CFA) with the US government. The CFA gives the US government exclusive military rights, a veto over the conduct of foreign affairs, and exempts the US government from any responsibility for the future impacts of its nuclear activities in the Marshall Islands. When describing the CFA, Lijon Eknilang said “The Compact is an agreement, a treaty. It says the US will take care of our defence and foreign affairs but give us independence. I do not see how we can be independent if we cannot control our relations with other countries. If we can’t control the US in our own land.”

The Marshallese have suffered enough already from the US government’s insane pursuit of military domination. When discussing BMD it is crucial that what has been done to them, to their island homes and ocean - their food and resource gathering areas - is not forgotten. A people’s way of life destroyed, their health and well being irreparably harmed ... for what?

-Edwina Hughes

For more information about the impact of BMD on the Pacific, check out ‘Kwajalein Atoll and the new arms race’, PCRC briefing, 1 February 2000;

For more information about BMD and Star Wars, check out the articles on the PMA Star Wars/Weapons in Space index page;

For more information about the Marshall Islands, check out previous PMA alerts and Pacific Action


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