WASHINGTON – The Pentagon announced Thursday that a remote patch of federal land in the mountains of western Maine is one of five sites being considered for a new missile defense facility.

The Department of Defense is looking at about 12,000 acres in Redington Township, east of Rangeley, for a battery of ground-based interceptors designed to detect and eliminate intercontinental missiles bound for North America.

The site is now home to a Navy field training program where pilots and special operations forces learn how to survive under duress and in cold weather.

The Pentagon is researching potential sites for an interceptor launch facility at the behest of Congress, in response to concerns about the threat posed by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. The U.S. military now operates two ground-based missile defense facilities, in Alaska and California.

There is no funding now for construction of a facility closer to the East Coast, and there’s disagreement in Congress about whether additional interceptors are needed. But defense officials said the current work will expedite construction if it is deemed necessary.

“While the (Obama) administration has not made a decision to build another missile defense facility in the U.S. for homeland defense, if a decision were to be made in the future to construct a new site, completing the required site study and environmental impact statement would shorten the timeline required to build such a site,” Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in a prepared statement.

Syring sent a letter Thursday to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, notifying her of the Redington site’s inclusion on the list.

The other four sites being considered are Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont; Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center in Ohio; Fort Custer CTC in Michigan; and Fort Drum in northern New York.

A Missile Defense Agency spokesman said that list will likely be culled to three by year’s end, starting a more comprehensive environmental impact review that includes opportunities for public comment.

The anti-ballistic missile facility could bring a significant number of year-round jobs to a rural corner of Maine that relies largely on tourism. It might also face public opposition, given the site’s proximity to ski resorts on Saddleback and Sugarloaf mountains and to the Appalachian Trail.

Clyde Barker, chairman of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, heard about the proposal for the first time Thursday. “I’m going to have to look into it to learn more about it,” he said.

An estimated 1,200 military personnel pass through the Navy’s cold-weather field training program in Redington Township every year, according to reports.

Known as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, the program is based at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and is intended to help train pilots, sailors and soldiers for capture, interrogation or survival situations.

The former Loring Air Force Base, in Limestone in far northern Maine, was believed initially to be on the longer list of potential sites for an East Coast interceptor facility.

Loring, which closed in 1994, once housed long-range B-52 bombers and an installation of Nike-Hercules surface-to-air missiles.

The federal government transferred ownership of the property to the Loring Development Authority after the base’s closure. Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner said all of the potential sites being studied for a missile defense facility are owned by the Department of Defense.

Collins had urged Pentagon officials to strongly consider Loring or the Limestone/Caribou area for a facility. A report released last year by The National Academies’ National Research Council also recommended the Caribou area — along with New York’s Fort Drum — as potential locations for an East Coast facility that the authors said would strengthen national defense.

“I know that it will come as a great disappointment to the people of central Aroostook County that the (Missile Defense Agency) has decided that Limestone will not be included as one of five sites it will continue to evaluate for a potential East Coast interceptor site,” Collins said in a prepared statement. “The Limestone site received significant support from the Loring Development Authority and the local community.”

Collins said she looks forward to connecting Defense Department officials with Franklin County residents. She said she also hopes that Limestone could be a candidate for radar sites related to missile defense.

“If an additional radar on the East Coast were funded next year or beyond, I would urge that Limestone be strongly considered because of its strategically important location,” said Collins, a Caribou native who serves on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

There’s a lively debate in Washington over whether the U.S. needs an additional interceptor missile facility, especially given the price and the technology’s subpar performance in recent testing. The current system has failed to destroy its target in three tests, including one in July.

That divide was evident Thursday in the various responses to the Pentagon’s announcement. While members of New York’s delegation praised the inclusion of Fort Drum, Vermont’s representatives were less enthused, according to statements and news reports.

“I’ve always felt that the multiple billions spent on missile defense are a monumental waste of money, on technologically challenged systems, and I am emphatically against putting one of these sites in Vermont,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate’s longest-serving member.

Congress required the Department of Defense to conduct environmental impact studies of three potential East Coast sites as part of a defense bill signed by President Obama earlier this year.

Pentagon officials have said they do not believe that an East Coast facility is needed to defend the U.S. under current circumstances. At the same time, they have acknowledged that Iran may have the capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2015, before an East Coast facility could be built.

Other members of Congress and some national security experts — including a former director of the Missile Defense Agency — insist that an East Coast location would help shield the U.S. from threats from Iran and other hostile nations.
 

This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. Sept. 13, 2013 to correct the location of the proposed facility. The federal property in question is located east of Rangeley, not to the west as was previously stated.

 

Kevin Miller can be contacted or at 317-6256 or at:
kmiller@mainetoday.com