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DOD Announcement Raises Prospect of Missle Base in Northern Maine
03/18/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

The prospect of a new missile base in northern Maine is being greeted with cautious optimism by some local residents. Talk of a base for so-called "interceptor" missiles - designed to bring down incoming enemy warheads - was prompted by a Defense Department announcement Friday. Tom Porter has more.

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The Pentagon said it would be conducting environmental impact studies for a new interceptor site, and two of the locations being considered are on the East Coast. Maine was not specifically identified by the DOD, but a high-profile scientific study released six months ago, recommended establishing a missile defense base in the Northeast, either at Fort Drum in New York, or at an "unspecified site in northern Maine."

"In an improved system, one of several things you would want to do is to put a base somewhere in the eastern part of the United States," says Walter Slocombe, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer. He's also co-chair of the committee which put together the report on ballistic missile defense for the National Research Council.

The report recommends improving and expanding the nation's so-called "mid-course" ballistic missile defense system that would intercept enemy missiles, mostly likely from North Korea or Iran, while they're up in space, half way through their journey to U.S. targets.

Slocombe points out there are existing interceptor bases out west, in California and Alaska. This, he says, is good geography to defend against an attack from North Korea, but "it's not very good geography if you're defending against a possible attack from Iran, and particularly it's not good defense for a potential attack on the eastern half of the United States."

While no specific location in northern Maine has been officially touted yet, the area around the former Loring Air Force Base, near Limestone in Aroostook county, is one pretty obvious candidate. It's an area with strong ties to the military. It's also a region that was economically eviscerated by the closure of the large base nearly 20 years ago.

Presque Isle businessman Arthur Thompson says the base closure left a big hole in the county. "This area's just like an other rural area in the United States just now, but back then we had an extra 8,000 or 10,000 population, either on the base of just off it," he says.

Thompson - who's the former head of the Loring Development Authority - says he and others in the community would welcome a new missile base in the area. "It's great for the economy, and I think we're as close to Europe, it will serve a good first line of defense."

Not everyone's a fan of the new missile defense plan. Laura Grego is with the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program. She says the idea of intercepting incoming missiles in space has a significant flaw.

"Which is that in the vacuum of space, objects travel at the same speed regardless of their mass, and you can pretty effectively make inexpensive, not terribly sophisticated decoys that will be almost indistinguishable from the warhead itself."

And Grego says that means a defesne system has to not only target the warhead, but also knock out any decoy warheads.
All of which, she says, makes this form of ballistic missile defense costly and impractical.

"The offense has this advantage, that they can put a number of inexpensive decoys - or chaff, or other kinds of things - nearby the warhead to confuse the defenses," she says. "And it's a very hard problem to solve."

Grego points out that the interceptor system has been tested a number of times since 2004 - and more than half of those tests have failed. The study by the National Research Council does admit the program has problems - including the issue of decoy warheads - but none that are big enough to derail the program.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, however, is calling for a halt to the plan until it can be shown to work.


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