WASHINGTON — Tucked up in the “crown of Maine,” the town of Limestone was, for decades, at the heart of the nation’s air defense system as a home base for the massive B-52 bombers capable of striking targets far from U.S. shores.

But since the closure of Loring Air Force Base in the mid-1990s, the Aroostook County town has watched its population shrink from nearly 10,000 to under 1,100.

So news that the Limestone-Caribou area may be a candidate for a missile defense installation would likely be welcomed by some in the area.

“Yes, (people) would probably be very interested,” said Marilyn King, a member of the Limestone Board of Selectmen. “We lost Loring … and the whole area has felt that impact.”

The Department of Defense plans to conduct environmental impact studies of two potential East Coast locations for “interceptor” systems used to eliminate inbound ballistic missiles before they reach the United States, Canada or allied nations. While the Pentagon has not said which two East Coast sites are under consideration, the Limestone-Caribou area has been mentioned before as a potential location and was one of two sites recommended last year in a report read by policymakers on Capitol Hill.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who is a Caribou native, has been among the members of Congress pushing the Obama administration to explore an East Coast missile defense site. Although Pentagon officials said as recently as last year that an East Coast location was not necessary, Congress required environmental impact studies as part of a recent defense bill.

And recent developments in North Korea and Iran appear to have added some urgency to administration’s missile defense plans. Both countries have been moving aggressively toward the development of nuclear weapons systems.

Collins said Friday that she hopes the administration will commit to an East Coast site to send a signal that it is “taking the looming threat from Iran with utmost seriousness.”

“An East Coast missile defense site would provide the East Coast the same defensive coverage that the West Coast already enjoys,” Collins said in a statement to the Portland Press Herald on Friday.

“Limestone was one of two sites identified in a widely respected and well-received missile defense report by the National Academy of Sciences last year. I believe it would compete well against other potential locations.”

Caribou Mayor and City Councilman Gary Aiken said he heard his area might be considered for a missile defense site “but just in passing.” Like King, though, he believes local residents would welcome the development and jobs.

“I think it would definitely be a positive reaction,” Aiken said Saturday.

Pentagon officials released few details Friday. While Congress directed the Defense Department to explore additional missile defense sites, the Obama administration is not currently obligated to build a new installation. The other East Coast site recommended by last year’s National Research Council report was Fort Drum in upstate New York.

If built, however, the East Coast site would become the third ground-based missile defense installation on U.S. soil and would supplement ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense systems.

The largest ground-based system is located at Fort Greely, Alaska, which is home to 26 anti-ballistic missile interceptors maintained by soldiers with the 49th Missile Defense Battalion. The Pentagon plans to add 14 more interceptors in Alaska in order to counter the perceived growing threat from North Korea.

In addition to a missile defense system, Fort Greely is also home to a Cold Regions Test Center, a Northern Warfare Training Center and other programs. Total employment at the base – both civilian and military – is roughly 1,100, according to the Fort Greely website.

In addition to the 26 interceptors at Fort Greely, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency maintains four interceptors at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Part of a “ground-based midcourse defense” system, the interceptors are launched via rocket into space along the trajectory of the incoming missile. Eventually, the “kill vehicle” separates from the rocket and uses its own sensors, propulsion and outside guidance from missile tracking systems to slam into the incoming warhead, according to information posted on Defense Department websites.

The actual intercept is designed to take place in space, with the debris left to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The latest system has yet to conclusively prove its effectiveness, however.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service reported Friday that the upgraded interceptors failed a test in December against a target resembling an incoming missile. Pentagon officials said Friday that the 14 new interceptors bound for Alaska will be deployed only if a second test this fall is successful.

“We certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence we need,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at Pentagon news conference, as reported by McClatchy-Tribune. “But the American people should be assured that our interceptors are effective.”

The National Research Council report released last year found serious holes in the nation’s defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially when it came to protecting the East Coast.

The report recommended establishment of a new type of interceptor system in either upstate New York or northern Maine “to protect the eastern United States and Canada against any potential threats.”

The report does not specify Limestone in particular but recommends a potential site in the Caribou area.

In various scenarios laid out in the report, the Maine-based missiles would likely be the third or fourth interceptors launched to knock down a missile bound for the United States.

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC