WASHINGTON — The head of the military’s missile defense program confirmed Wednesday that northern Maine is still being considered as a location for an “interceptor” missile facility on the East Coast.

But a Senate budget hearing Wednesday also made clear that some influential lawmakers remain skeptical of expanding a missile defense system that has repeatedly failed to intercept targets in tests. The U.S. now has two ground-based interceptor missile locations, both on the West Coast.

A facility on the East Coast would be assigned to protect the eastern U.S. and Canada against potential threats from intercontinental ballistic missiles. The belief that Iran is developing nuclear weapons has helped drive the search for a site in the Northeast.

Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said the staff in his program is using a long list of criteria to screen locations – including, apparently, sites in the Caribou-Limestone area of Aroostook County. Within several weeks, the agency expects to have a short list of locations for further evaluation that will include discussions with local governmental officials and site surveys before the end of this year, Syring said.

“We are looking at the two sites in Maine in conjunction with other sites as well,” Syring told Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

The interceptors are part of a “ground-based midcourse defense” system designed to seek out and eliminate an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile before it can threaten North America. Republicans and Democrats have clashed over whether the program merits more or less funding, given persistent technological problems.

Collins asked Syring whether the Missile Defense Agency was still considering two East Coast sites that were identified as strong contenders in a report released last year by the National Academy’s National Research Council.

That report recommended a new type of interceptor system in northern Maine or upstate New York. It specifically mentioned the Caribou area, although the former Loring Air Force Base in nearby Limestone is more often discussed as a potential site.

There are no firm figures for the number of jobs that an East Coast missile defense facility would generate, although estimates are in the hundreds.

Collins, a Caribou native, also asked Syring whether his agency is considering local residents’ level of support for such a facility. Several officials in the Limestone-Caribou area have welcomed the prospect of a missile defense facility.

“I know my state of Maine is a very welcoming place for military installations of this sort,” Collins said.

“We do consider that factor and it will be a factor in our decision,” Syring said.

The Obama administration plans environmental impact reviews of two East Coast sites but is not obligated to build a new facility. Support for the system is not unanimous in Congress, largely because of the system’s dismal test performance in recent years.

On July 5, an interceptor managed by Boeing Co. failed to knock down its target in a test – the third straight failure for the system. Syring said Wednesday that the “kill vehicle” – the part of the interceptor designed to slam into the incoming warhead – failed to separate from the booster rocket.

“Every part of the system worked as designed up until the (kill vehicle’s) failure to separate,” Syring said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Defense Subcommittee, said Congress faces “some critical budget decisions” and may no longer have the luxury of spending money on a system that has failed so many tests. Durbin estimated that the U.S. has spent $150 billion for missile defense since President Reagan made it a priority in the 1980s.

“It’s been five years since we have had a successful intercept test – five years – and all of the conversation from the administration and at this table today has been about how we should continue to spend more for silos in Alaska and for placement of ground missile defense on the East Coast,” Durbin said. “I am trying to reconcile the appetite of Congress to keep spending more money with the actual results of testing.”

Reports also suggest that Iran does not yet have the technological capacity to strike the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile, although defense experts have said Iran could have the ability by 2015.

The U.S. now has two ground-based missile defense facilities: a 26-interceptor facility at Fort Greely in Alaska and a four-interceptor facility at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Obama administration plans to increase the number of interceptors on the West Coast to 44.

Those systems supplement ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense systems. Loring Air Force Base was once a critical part of the nation’s defense network, serving as home base for long-range B-52 bombers and housing Nike-Hercules surface-to-air missiles. Since the base closed in 1994, the population of the surrounding area has dropped from nearly 10,000 to about 1,100.

In a letter to Collins in September, officials with the Loring Development Authority of Maine said they were “very interested in facilitating a new interceptor base,” given the potential economic impact.

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

kmiller@mainetoday.com