It’s been a little more than a week since the state Emergency Management Agency zapped most Hawaii residents with a false ballistic missile alert. While it took about a day for everything to return to our normal state of bliss, I’ve lately become fixated on the large corporate-like boxes at the top of Lipoa Parkway in Kihei.
It all started a few days after the alert, when some friends of mine started talking about how the prevailing wisdom that in Hawaii, all the big nuclear warhead targets are on Oahu (the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks/Wheeler Field, the Marine base at Kaneohe, etc.), was wrong. In a strike, they said, Kihei would definitely get hit.
Their reason? The Maui High Performance Computing Center (MHPCC), located at 550 Lipoa Parkway in Kihei. Built in 1993, the complex–known in the acronym jargon as a DoD Supercomputing Resource Center (DSRC)–is an Air Force research lab packed with supercomputers.
“The MHPCC DSRC operates as one of the six DoD Supercomputing Resource Centers in the DoD’s High Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP),” states the Maui Center’s webpage. “The MHPCC DSRC allocates more than 70,000,000 computational hours annually to the HPCMP Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation community.”
As for what the MHPCC actually does, well, the Department of Defense isn’t exactly specific (though it’s very clear that the computers it operates are extremely powerful). “The MHPCC DSRC provides computational resources for the Department of Defense’s scientific computational needs through their support of DoD ‘Challenge Projects’ and other government users,” states the MHPCC website. “The Center also supports the Directed Energy Directorate’s Maui Space Surveillance System. Located atop 10,000-foot Mt. Haleakala, the Space Surveillance System is used for imaging and tracking of space objects.”
But just because the DoD operates some large computers in Kihei, does that rise to the level of an actual target for someone’s nuclear weapons? I asked two respected experts on nuclear weapons history and policy to speculate on the question, and while they mostly agreed with each, their answers were a mix of good news and, well…
“For North Korea, I would really doubt it,” said Alex Wellerstein, a professor of Science and Technology Studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey (and developer of the really sophisticated and scary NUKEMAP computer application), in a Jan. 19 email. “They don’t have many missiles, they don’t probably have great accuracy. ‘Wasting’ a nuke on a single military facility seems, well, wasteful.”
Stephen I. Schwartz, the former Editor of The Nonproliferation Review and author of numerous books on nuclear weapons policy, agreed. “For a country like North Korea, with a small nuclear arsenal and (thus far) very limited means to deliver weapons to targets, I’d say no,” said Schwartz in a Jan. 20 email. “Besides, Kim Jong Un has already been photographed with maps showing potential US nuclear targets, and this isn’t on the map (although Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam is).”
Well, that’s reassuring. But what if a small, so-called “limited” nuclear exchange with North Korea touched off a much wider, global nuclear war involving Russia and maybe even China?
“I don’t think we really know,” Wellerstein said. “If Russia thought that the HPCC had something to do with US command and control systems–sure, they’d target it, they have plenty of missiles and lots of accuracy. If it’s just for scientific research, even classified work, they might skip it to target other things that would be more important (e.g., things that would impair the US nuking Russia in some way).
“But all of this is pretty speculative–we can only guess about what they might want to do, and then from there figure out what the capabilities might be,” he continued. “But the MHPCC is pretty small and isolated–I don’t suspect it’d be a high-value target unless it really sits at the center of some kind of important communication node.”
And once again, Schwartz agreed. “For a country like Russia or China with substantially more nuclear weapons (and, probably, more specific objectives), such a facility might wind up on a target list, though there’s no way those of us on the outside would ever really know,” Schwartz said. “During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had such enormous amounts of nuclear weapons that it was a real struggle, at least in the United States, to find realistic targets for them all. In that instance, the Maui facility would have likely wound up on the list. Today, with much smaller arsenals? Probably not, but who knows? It certainly doesn’t appear to be the kind of place that, if destroyed, would have an immediate and measurable impact on the outcome of a war.”
Oh, and if you really want to ruin your day, check out Wellerstein’s NUKEMAP website. Just key in a location (or drag the marker to any spot on earth), click on your preferred warhead yield, select surface or air burst and then click the big red “Detonate” button and watch the casualty counter run like there’s no tomorrow.
Photo of MHPCC: MauiTime