Missile project stalled in Alaska, despite Bush administration interest

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Despite heightened interest in the Bush administration about missile defense, no construction activity is under way yet in Alaska, the most likely spot for the first deployment of interceptor missiles.

The huge and still-unproven defense project is on hold while the new administration weighs options that could include development of technologies other than the limited Alaska system favored by the Clinton administration. Theoretically at stake is the defense of Alaska, as well as a $600 million construction project for the Interior.

''We're leaning forward in the foxhole waiting for someone to blow the bugle so we can charge,'' said Chris Nelson, missile defense coordinator for Gov. Tony Knowles.

The stalled project takes on new significance for Alaskans in light of North Korea's recent threat to resume testing its intermediate-range missiles in response to the Bush administration's ''hard-line stance'' toward the country.

Defense experts say the Taepo-dong 2, the missile under development when testing was suspended nearly two years ago, would have a range of about 2,500 to 3,700 miles. The distance from Anchorage to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, is about 3,700 miles.

More likely targets, however, would be South Korea and Japan, according to military experts. A nuclear shot at Alaska could be considered suicidal, given America's ability to retaliate.

But those who support a national missile shield, including many in the Bush administration, depict North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as unpredictable and unstable, a dictator who might choose nuclear destruction rather than lose power.

Alaska might offer attractive targets, such as the trans-Alaska pipeline, Nelson said. Such a strike might create economic havoc but kill only dozens of people, possibly causing a U.S. president to think twice about a retaliation that would kill hundreds of thousands.

Under that scenario, Alaska's isolation could make it more vulnerable.

A final decision on national missile defense, including possible deployment of the Alaska system, isn't expected until summer, Nelson said. But state officials hope to hear in the next few weeks whether work can begin this year on the remote Aleutian island of Shemya, where a high-resolution radar for tracking incoming missiles could be built.

Under the Clinton administration's original $60 billion plan, a go-ahead on Shemya construction was needed by this month to meet the goal of erecting a missile system by 2005. That's when an independent commission had predicted nuclear threats to the United States from North Korea or other countries could be in place.

After several failed tests of the interceptor missiles, President Clinton left the decision for the next president. Even if President Bush opts for a more ambitious system, such ground-based interceptors as those proposed for Alaska would likely play a role, according to state officials.

Environmental studies of an Alaska system have been completed but no site has been chosen, said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The federal studies identified Fort Greely as the preferred site in Alaska; bases in North Dakota also have been studied.

The studies predict that construction of a missile site in Alaska would cost $626 million over five years, requiring 400 construction workers each year, Nelson said. About 360 would be needed to run the base, including National Guard units.

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