The U.S. Army says facilities that support operations for a key space and missile test range were among many affected by massive waves seen in a viral video that crashed ashore Jan. 20 on Roi-Namur Island in the Kwajalein Atoll. The "weather-driven waves" caused "significant damage" across the island, the Army said in a media release.
Roi-Namur is the second-largest island of the atoll, which is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll (USAG–KA) based there supports the U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) and houses critical radar and other sensors that support mission readiness and military testing.
The two islands of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur are home to approximately 1,300 Americans, working for the U.S. government as military service members, Defense Department civilians and contractors.
The test site serves as a space and missile defense test range for the Defense Department. Just some recent examples of it more high profile uses, the RTS was the designated impact area for a failed 2021 test of a missile design that will be used in the U.S. Army's Dark Eagle and the U.S. Navy's Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike weapon systems. A year earlier, RTS was the site of a milestone achievement for U.S. ballistic missile defense. That's when an SM-3 Block IIA missile successfully destroyed a threat-representative intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) target launched from there. The atoll also supports other missions, including those having to do with space communications and surveillance.
"Aerial photos show extensive damage to Roi-Namur’s infrastructure, and multiple areas on the island are under water," the Army said in a media release. It mentioned no other islands in the atoll.
“All operations within the Kwajalein Atoll were affected by the weather anomaly directly or indirectly," including the Reagan Test Site, Lira Frye, Public Affairs Director for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command said in an email to The War Zone Wednesday. "Right now, the priority remains health and welfare of people. As the garrison shifts from initial emergency measures, they'll begin to determine the extent of the damage which will help establish a timeline for a return to normal operations, both for the Garrison and RTS."
"We will get through this and we are settling in for a marathon of recovery ahead it may last months or even years," Col. Drew Morgan, USAG–KA garrison commander, said in a Facebook message Sunday. "Luckily, there were only a few minor injuries."
“Flooding from the waves damaged much of the unaccompanied personnel housing,” Frye said. “The Dining Facility, the Outrigger Club, the chapel and the island's theater were moderately to severely damaged. The automotive complex remains underwater.”
A video first posted on Instagram by user worldmaverick garnered more than 1.3 million combined views, showed the moments when the waves crashed into the dining facility at the Outrigger Club. The video looks like something from a fictional Hollywood disaster movie.
“Get the door closed. Get the door closed,” a man shouts as a wall of water swells up, then smashes against doors, which are knocked down by the force of water rushing in. Several people are pushed through the doors as they collapse.
“Oh my God, Jake are you OK?” the man later exclaims.
“Coming in,” he says, as a bench is pushed in by rising water a few seconds later.
“Get out of here,” he orders, just before the lights go out.
While it is unclear exactly what cause the massive waves, worldmaverick suggested it was the result of "a combination of wind, tides and swell direction."
USAG–KA personnel evacuated 80 of the approximately 120 personnel who call Roi-Namur home, the Army said in a media release. Sixty people remain to assess damage and restore basic services while continuing the water and fuel runs that sustain the island of Enniburr, the island south of Roi-Namur where the Marshallese workforce resides.
“Clearing the runway on Roi-Namur and assessing its safety is our top priority now that we have evacuated personnel not required for the initial response efforts,” Morgan, the base commander, stated in the media release. “Once the runway is open, we can move people and equipment back and forth to start the recovery process.”
Located nearly 2,500 miles from Japan and more than 2,100 miles from Australia, it is one of the most remote U.S. military facilities in the world.
It is unknown yet what efforts the garrison has or will take to mitigate the effects of weather. We asked the Army and Pentagon for details.
While the Army refers to the incident at Roi-Namur as a "weather anomaly," the issue of how climate changes are affecting military installations is a big concern for the Pentagon. Far-flung Pacific islands like Roi-Namur are a particular concern.
The “'tipping point' in island flooding – the time at which the majority of Roi-Namur’s land would be flooded annually – is projected to occur between 2055 and 2065 for the worst-case climate scenario, between 2060 and 2070 for the business as usual climate scenario, and sometime after 2105 for the best-case scenario," according to a 2020 Defense Department study on climate change. "Flooding from seawater is expected to have detrimental impacts to infrastructure, shorelines, roads, runways, and other recreational areas on and surrounding the installation. RTS also houses critical radar and sensors that support mission readiness and military training. Relocating the critical radar and sensors would impact the military mission."
Many of the adjacent islands on Kwajalein Atoll that are inhabited and/or have DoD facilities will experience similar impacts, the study noted.
"This region has proven to be a vital strategic asset to DoD and other national space operations given its remote location in the Pacific as well as the advanced technology this base supports."
As we previously reported, the Army in 2022 issued a new strategy for how to adjust its operations in response to climate change while still executing its core mission to “deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt and sustained land dominance."
Climate-related disasters have caused havoc at installations around the world. A few examples include Typhoon Mawar battering Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in 2023. Flooding in 2019 swamped Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Hurricane Michael destroyed Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in 2018.
"Climate change is altering the global landscape and, with it, the department's mission," the Pentagon's Chief Sustainability Officer Brendan Owen said last month at the 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28, held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "It impacts our military readiness—including warfighter training, mission execution, tactical planning, acquisition and sustainment of platforms and installations, and national and global security."
It remains unknown the extent of damage to facilities at Roi-Namur Island and around the rest of the atoll, as well as how long key facilities will remain offline and how much it will cost to restore them. Regardless, the incident could be a harbinger of what's to come not just for this critical facility, but for other low-lying island bases like it.
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