July 18, 2013

Maine still in running for missile site

Residents may welcome it but some lawmakers are skeptical of a system that has a dismal test record.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

The Missile Defense Agency conducted a flight test of a three-stage ground-based interceptor missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this year.

Missile Defense Agency photo

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.

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