Alaska plays critical role in missile-shield proposal

State is well situated to defend nation

War On Terrorism

November 11, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DELTA JUNCTION, Alaska - The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Roy Wiggins pointed at the TV overhead in the town's popular Buffalo Diner, as all eyes trained on a report on the devastation in New York and Washington, D.C.

"If that doesn't demonstrate how badly we need missile defense," he said over supper with his three young sons, "there's nothing better to make the point."

Wiggins is a firefighter at nearby Fort Greely, where work will begin this spring on five missile silos and supporting buildings aimed at testing a missile defense shield by 2004 - if Congress approves. The Pentagon has begun work on the site, clearing 135 acres this fall on an expanse of spruce, birch and cottonwood trees set against majestic vistas of the Granite and Alaska ranges.

President Bush has made the development of a missile defense system - and the abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - a cornerstone of administration policy, and the diplomatically sensitive issue is expected to dominate summit talks this week with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

The two leaders, who will meet in Washington and at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, from Tuesday through Thursday, are working toward an agreement that would allow extensive testing of the missile shield and substantially cut the number of strategic warheads the two nations can have. The White House has considered a plan to reduce the number of warheads to between 1,750 and 2,250 for each of the countries, from about 6,000 apiece, but the administration is signaling doubts whether an agreement can be reached by this week's summit.

Before the terror attacks, Putin was adamantly opposed to any compromise over the 1972 treaty, which bans national missile defense systems on the theory that fear of retaliation would deter aggression. The treaty has long been viewed by Russia as the foundation of the two nations' arms control pacts.

But in recent weeks, as Putin and Bush have drawn closer over mutual worries about terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, the Russian president has suggested that he might be amenable to modifying the 29-year-old pact.

Congressional opposition to Bush's missile shield plans eroded after the Sept. 11 attack, clearing the way for a defense appropriations bill that includes $8.3 billion for missile defense.

Eyes on North Korea

While Bush asserted last week that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was aggressively seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, no credible expert believes that he would be able to launch a long-range missile strike. Instead, the anti-missile shield is being described as protection against an attack by a "rogue nation" like North Korea.

In such a case, Alaska is critical to deflecting a threat. That is because a missile launched from North Korea would find its shortest route to the United States traveling over or near Alaska, and an interceptor missile filed in response from Alaska would have the best chance of knocking it down before it enters the airspace of the continental United States.

For the moment, the Bush administration says it is merely promoting more realistic testing of interceptors by adding Fort Greely and a site on Alaska's Kodiak Island to the Northern Pacific test bed to enable more varied, "multilayered" testing. In other words, various types of missiles could be launched in different directions at the same time, be tracked by radar and satellite, and destroyed by interceptors in mid-flight.

Current testing typically involves two sites - Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The proposed new test bed would fire mock enemy missiles from California and Alaska, and send interceptor missiles from Alaska, Kwajalein Atoll and Navy ships. It might also employ airborne lasers. Radar systems would be upgraded at Beale Air Force Base in California and Cobra Dane on Shemya Island in Alaska's Aleutian island chain.

Eastward test needed

In the current test bed, which was created for testing missiles used in nuclear deterrence, missiles fly east to west. To counter future threats, the United States also needs a west-to-east test to replicate a missile coming from North Korea, said Peter Huessy, a defense consultant.

"You've got a testing facility that isn't actually right for testing," he said, adding that the addition of Alaska to the test bed corrects that problem.

Critics argue that the new Alaska test bed does nothing to promote more realistic testing. The Union of Concerned Scientists has written several position papers picking apart the proposal, saying that it won't work against even limited ballistic missile attacks from emerging missile states.

They also say that the proposed testing at Fort Greely is a veiled effort to deploy missiles there by 2004, a charge the Pentagon denies.

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