March 16, 2013

Defense system welcome in Maine

Aroostook County residents still feel the economic sting from the closing of Loring Air Force Base in the 1990s.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

Politics poll: Missile defense

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Chuck Hagel
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “We certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence we need. But the American people should be assured that our interceptors are effective.”

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Politics poll: Missile defense

Do you think the Limestone-Caribou area should be the site of a missile defense installation?

Yes

No

View Results