Clinton's missile decision delays uncertainty in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- President Clinton's decision to not decide on a national missile defense system leaves the future out of focus for residents of Delta Junction.

The Interior city sits next to Fort Greely, said to be the favored site for a missile defense system if it is built. With Greely on the Pentagon's base-closure list, the missiles are seen as a business opportunity that would keep the community viable.

Clinton on Friday said he wasn't sure the technology is available to build an effective anti-missile shield, so he will let the next president decide if and when a national missile defense is deployed.

That means the people of Delta may not know their destiny for another year, or even longer, and that means hardship because Greely's job rolls continue to decline.

''If you put this (missile decision) off an additional year, it's going to mean more uncertainty in the lives and pocketbooks of people around here,'' said Pete Hallgren, Delta's economic development director.

The military wanted the system in place by 2005, meaning that before year-end Clinton would have had to authorize the Pentagon to award contracts for initial construction of a powerful radar facility on Shemya Island. The radar would provide the missile-tracking capability needed for an effective missile defense.

The president's decision on Friday put off any Shemya work until 2006 or even 2007, said Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

Stevens said the obstacle is getting construction materials and equipment to Shemya, site of the former Eareckson Air Force Base. Wind and water present the logistical challenge on the island, which does not have a permanent dock.

The senator, an avid supporter of a missile defense system, said he was perplexed as to why Clinton felt compelled to pass the ball now.

''There's no pressure on him to make this announcement,'' said Stevens. ''By doing it, he's made missile defense a political issue.''

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, has been noncommittal about whether there should be a national missile defense, saying he supported continued development work.

Gore's Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has said he would push hard for a missile defense even more robust than the one on the drawing board.

Sen. Frank Murkowski said Clinton's decision not to proceed with deployment was understandable, given the bugs that still need to be worked out. But he would have preferred that contracts be issued for the radar work on Shemya.

''Given the difficult weather and the extremely short construction season in the Aleutians, delaying any work until a new president takes office will certainly delay the timetable for deployment of a missile defense shield -- if it is proven feasible -- by a full year or more,'' Murkowski said in a statement.

Brig. Gen. Phil Oates, commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said he too wanted the Shemya component to be built on the 2005 schedule.

But he said he understood the president's rationale and found an upside to a delay.

''It's a very complex, high-risk program,'' said Oates. ''An additional year will give us an additional year to work the technical problems.''

Oates is also commander of the Alaska National Guard, which has been playing a role in the missile defense planning process for building the system and then staffing it.

Hallgren said he was also heartened to hear that Clinton said the military should continue testing the feasibility of the missile defense system, which has not fared well in dry runs.

But in the meantime, Delta waits and wonders.

''There's a real incentive for people to look at greener pastures,'' Hallgren said. ''There are a lot of folks in the area with deep roots, and they would rather not have to leave.''

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