WASHINGTON -- It hardly seems the stuff of geopolitical significance: In forested flatlands about 100 miles from Fairbanks, contractors are taking down 135 acres of fire-scorched spruce and birch trees on a closed military post.
When they are done, they also will improve a few roads near Fort Greely and dig wells.
Next spring, given congressional approval, the Bush administration intends to dig some deep holes there, then fill them with five interceptor missile silos.
At some point during the work -- precisely when is open to debate -- the United States likely will come into conflict with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. It is one of the fundamental arms control treaties of the Cold War.
The administration says it will either withdraw from the treaty to avoid violating it, or it will reach a modified accord with Russia allowing the work to go forward.
Even during the Clinton administration, Fort Greely was a flashpoint for ABM treaty issues. Clinton considered using the fort as the home for 100 interceptors that would serve as the nation's sole missile defense.
The Bush administration has changed that. It is opting to test several missile defense technologies, including the ground-based interceptor program backed by the Clinton administration.
To do so, the military envisions a missile range spanning most of the north Pacific Ocean. Sites at Fort Greely, Kodiak Island, and Shemya, Alaska, would augment the existing test range that runs between Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Ballistic target missiles would be launched from one part of the range, either from a ground-based site or from an airplane. New radars would track the missile as it arcs toward space, shedding boosters and possibly dropping decoys.
Around 200 miles above the Earth, the targets would tip over and fall back toward the surface. One or several experimental missile defenses -- ground-based or naval interceptors, airborne lasers, or possibly orbital weapons -- would try to shoot it down.
The ABM treaty has provisions against testing many of those defenses. Even using certain ship radars, or several radars in tandem, to track missiles during flight tests could create problems with compliance, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged in congressional testimony in July.
The giant range is necessary to give the programs adequate testing, said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, the Pentagon agency running missile defense.
He said there is only one trajectory for missiles flying between Kwajalien and California; with the multiple launch sites, there would be several.
Building the range will cost $800 million, much of that for a new, high-resolution radar in Hawaii, Lehner said.
Fort Greely would be an interceptor missile base. Crews there would practice loading and unloading interceptor missiles from silos. Others would run an operations center and conduct launch drills, but no plans are in place for missiles to take off from Greely, Lehner said.
Those five silos, however, would be operational, and nothing would prevent the missiles inside from being used in an emergency, officials said.
Should the interceptor program go forward, Greely likely would be the site for the real thing. The 135 acres being cleared at Greely would provide enough space for 100 silos, Lehner said.
Greely was shut down in the 1995 base closure round. Its virtue as a base was its arctic conditions. The Army tested equipment performance in temperatures that regularly dip below minus 50 degrees Farenheit.
Now, much of its 750,000 acres serves as a bombing range for military aircraft.
When the base closed, nearby Delta Junction, a community of about 3,000, lost about half of its job base. The town's economic development director is happy to see the military return.
''They will have an awful lot of construction people, and they will have a lot of rocket scientists working out there and living in the community,'' Pete Hallgren said.
For all the activity planned for Greely, Delta residents do not expect to see missiles overhead anytime soon. During tests, interceptors ordered launched from Greely would take off from Kodiak Island, Alaska, hundreds of miles to the southwest.
On the island is the Kodiak Launch Complex, opened by the state in 1998 as a commercial space venture. Because Kodiak, unlike Fort Greely, is already cleared for rocket launches, the military would simply rent the launch facilities and build two interceptor silos, and fire between two and four interceptor shots a year, Lehner said.
Kodiak might later be used to launch target missiles for airborne laser and naval interceptor tests, but the site is not suited for deployment of any ABM systems, he said.
A number of island residents have protested the planned launches, saying they want the complex used solely for civilian purposes.
A coalition of environmental and arms control groups sued the Defense Department last week to force a fresh round of environmental studies for the test range.
The Pentagon argues that studies performed under the Clinton administration are adequate. An additional study for the Kodiak operations has been ordered.
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