18 July 2013
The director of the Missile Defense Agency confirmed Wednesday that a site in northern Maine is under consideration in response to a question by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who hails from Caribou. The agency expects to come up with a list of potential locations for further review in a matter of weeks.
Several communities around Limestone expressed support for hosting such a military installation despite being stung by Loring’s closing two decades ago.
“If they knock on our door tomorrow, we’re definitely going to be talking to them,” said Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority.
Congress has directed the Defense Department to create an East Coast interceptor site in response to a perceived threat from Iran, which is believed to be developing nuclear weapons. The National Research Council, part of the National Academies of Science, zeroed in on northern Maine and northern New York as possible locations.
The idea is that land-based interceptors would supplement Navy warships equipped with ballistic missile defense systems. Currently, the only land-based sites are at Alaska’s Fort Greely and California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Vice Adm. James D. Syring said during a Senate defense appropriations subcommittee meeting that the Navy is looking at two sites in Maine, along with other sites as well.
The U.S. will conduct environmental studies, and Syring said he hopes to conduct site inspections by year’s end. But he acknowledged funds have not been appropriated.
Loring Air Force Base in Limestone closed in 1994, sending the economy of Aroostook County into a tailspin. Homes came on the market with few buyers and scores of businesses went under.
The county’s population continued a downward spiral for 10 years.
“Things have kind of bottomed out and stabilized. Aroostook’s economy was not extremely robust to begin with, but the hemorrhaging has stopped,” Flora said.
Although hurt by Loring’s closing, residents would be supportive of additional military investment and personnel.
The Defense Finance and Accounting Service already has offices in Limestone, and local leaders and residents realize the potential for new jobs outweighs the risk that they might one day disappear, said Austin Blees, city manager in Caribou, adjacent to Limestone.
Local officials have been monitoring the interceptor discussions since last fall.
“We have a lot of retired veterans in Caribou today. The people of Caribou would be welcome and open to a military establishment coming back,” Blees said.
18 July 2013
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 about expanding a missile defense system that repeatedly has 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 about 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 discussed more often 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 Ronald 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. Syring acknowledged that the Aegis system has proven more effective and reliable.
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.
Carl Flora, president and CEO of the authority, wrote, "The establishment of
an interceptor base would create new economic stimulus for the region, and I
believe it would be enthusiastically welcomed by the broader community."