Army cancels missile launching project

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Even before they were officially announced, the Army canceled a series of 20 missile launches targeting state lands in the Brooks Range with hazardous liquid-fueled rockets and clusters of 40-pound dummy payloads screaming like bullets at 1,000 feet per second.

The five-year test program, based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Poker Flat Research Range, was to be part of the Army's efforts to improve its battlefield missile defenses, according to a still-secret environmental assessment obtained by Fairbanks author Dan O'Neill, a critic of the tests and of the use of Poker Flat for classified military research.

The first two tests were to have been flown in daylight in April or May, according to the launch schedule.

Neither Army nor Poker Flat officials would disclose what missiles were to be launched. But O'Neill discovered that the dimensions, fuel, design, range and portable launcher that are described and drawn in the environmental assessment fit the Russian-designed SS-1c, known in the West as the Scud B.

''If you compare what the thing looks like and all the numbers, all the numbers match up,'' said David Wright, a physicist and missile expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. ''To be as careful as possible, it's either a Scud or someone's replica of a Scud.''

The Scud B is one of the most widely used of all the Soviet-era missiles. Among the countries outside the old Soviet bloc with that model are Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea.

Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Army's Missile Defense Agency in Virginia, said the government would keep a launch of foreign-made missiles classified in part to avoid answering questions of how it obtained them.

In its environmental assessment, Wright said the Army hoped to learn the radar signature of the rocket and its multiple warhead payload -- the kind that might carry chemical or biological weapons -- in hopes of designing a tactical missile defense for U.S. and allied troops. American and Israeli forces fired Patriot missiles at incoming Iraqi Scuds during the Persian Gulf War with only mixed success.

The Alaska test was not directly related to the national missile defense program, which is being designed to protect North America from long-range strategic weapons.

Poker Flat manager Gregory Walker said Wednesday he learned of the cancellation in a conference call with Army officials Tuesday morning.

Walker had arranged the conference call to argue that the Army should publicly disclose at least some of its testing plans.

He was shocked to learn that the entire program was canceled.

''I was most concerned that it was something that we did or didn't do right,'' Walker said in a telephone interview. ''They said, You weren't an issue.' ''

Lehner said the issue came down to the expense of executing the tests in Alaska, which ''was quite high.''

''There were a number of logistical hurdles and technical challenges in terms of getting people up there,'' Lehner said.

The project had its origins long before Sept. 11.

Harry Bader, a state Department of Natural Resources official in Fairbanks, said Army officials told his agency that the helicopters originally planned for the experiment were diverted to Afghanistan. The Army was contemplating using tracked vehicles to haul radars, generators, personnel, cleanup gear and rocket debris between Coldfoot and the Chandalar Basin in the Brooks Range wilderness.

The tests will now take place at a military reservation in the Lower 48, possibly White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Lehner said.

The Army originally rejected White Sands because it was too small and because the Army lacked the permits and agreements with landowners in target zones outside the range, according to the environmental assessment.

The Army asserted that the tests would fall within agreements with landowners and managers downrange in Alaska, but officials with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge said the military tests might have to undergo public hearings before the springtime launches.

The Army promised to clean up after itself. All 25 to 50 simulated weapons in every payload, weighing between 33 and 55 pounds each, were to carry radio beacons to make them easier to retrieve. The rocket remains, and any fuel still inside, will also be hauled off unless buried too deep in the ground to remove, the environmental assessment said.

Poker Flat, on Mile 30 of the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, is mainly known as the launching pad for high altitude experiments on the aurora borealis and associated upper atmosphere phenomena. The facility, operated by UAF's Geophysical Institute, generally uses a variety of hand-me-down, multistage solid-fuel rockets provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, often from discarded military stockpiles.

Poker Flat had never launched a guided, liquid-propelled rocket before, and the fuel for each test launch -- like the fuel for a Scud B -- was particularly hazardous. It consists of 268 gallons of benzene and kerosene, 485 gallons of oxidizer -- inhibited red-fuming nitric acid -- and nine gallons of initiator fuel that immediately bursts into flame when it contacts the oxidizer.

An explosion on the launch pad, or shortly after launch, would send a deadly cloud of nitric acid vapor drifting in the area, according to Walker and the environmental assessment.

While nitric acid is neutralized in water, Walker said the mixture was deemed so dangerous that the Army said the rockets couldn't be launched at Poker Flat because they were too near the blockhouse and other buildings. Instead, they picked a gravel pit a mile away. At launch time, the Steese Highway would have to be blocked and residents in the area evacuated.

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