Wake Island is not particularly impressive. Made of coral, the atoll is a mere twelve feet or so above sea level at its lowest point. It is remote, too. It is twenty-three hundred miles or about thirty-seven hundred kilometers west of Honolulu, and about two thousand miles, or thirty-two hundred kilometers, southeast of Tokyo. Wake Island’s remote location is what makes the speck of rock so important to the United State’s presence in the Pacific Ocean region.
Wake Island was claimed by the United States in 1899, though European contact with the island had been made multiple times before then. The island remained mostly uninhabited, minus the occasional castaway or stranded ship’s crew until the late 1930s, when the United States placed a small Marine garrison on the coral outpost. During World War II, Wake Island was the scene of intense fighting between Marine elements defending the island against the Japanese, simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Wake Island Now
Today, Wake Island remains one of the most remote islands in the world, protected by miles and miles of open ocean. The rocky outpost has been modified extensively since World War II and hosts a nearly ten-thousand-foot-long runway, which can accommodate all aircraft currently in United States service.
In the event of a war in the Pacific, American bases on remote outposts like Guam or Okinawa would likely have a very difficult time fending off hostile missile attacks, partly because of their proximity to Asia. Okinawa in particular is only around five hundred miles or so from the Chinese coast.
Even though both islands have missile defense systems—the Patriot surface-to-air missile system and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system—both could be overwhelmed by a large enough missile salvo. Losses at islands nearer to Asia at the outset of a conflict could be immense and next to impossible to prevent. Wake Island however is harder to hit—and it might just be out of reach.
Another factor besides sheer distance that would keep Wake Island better protected is the United States’ Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD), a missile intercept system. Whereas missile defense systems like THAAD or the Patriot missile defense system are shorter range and provide regional protection, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missile system has a much, much larger flight envelope.
The GBMD system is deployed in both Alaska and California and is specifically designed to counter longer-range missile threats against the entire United States and Canada. Wake Island is likely just inside the interceptor’s defense umbrella.
In the event of a Pacific war, American bombers would have to carry out a high number of sorties against enemy missile and air defense outposts in the Western Pacific. In that conflict, Wake Island would be the last American outpost in the Pacific able to get bombers into the air and keep fighters alongside them fueled up and ready to go. Bombs away!
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.