WASHINGTON – A site in far northern Maine may be on the short list of potential locations for a missile defense system designed to knock down nuclear warheads bound for the United States.
Defense Department officials announced Friday that they are moving forward with plans for environmental impact studies on three potential sites for ballistic missile “interceptor” systems: two on the East Coast and one on the West Coast.
While officials did not name locations Friday, two sites recommended in a report last year were northern Maine – the Caribou area in particular – and Fort Drum in upstate New York. Caribou is close to the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.
The office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, could not confirm whether Caribou or Limestone is on the list. But Collins, who is from Caribou and was the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee until this year, indicated she would support locating a missile defense system in that area.
“An East Coast missile defense site would provide the East Coast the same defensive coverage that the West Coast already enjoys,” Collins said in a statement to the Portland Press Herald. “Limestone was one of two sites identified in a widely respected and well-received missile defense report by the National Academy of Sciences last year. I believe it would compete well against other potential locations.”
That report, by the academy’s National Research Council, cited serious holes in the nation’s defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially for the East Coast. It recommended a new type of interceptor system, in upstate New York or northern Maine, “to protect the eastern United States and Canada against any potential threats that are limited in nature.”
The Caribou area was once a critical part of the nation’s nuclear defense system because of the presence of the B-52 bomber fleet at Loring Air Force Base. The federal government transferred ownership of Loring after the base’s closure in 1994.
Congress required the three impact studies as part of a defense bill signed by President Obama earlier this year. The studies appear to have gained urgency because of the growing nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran.
The Defense Department plans to spend nearly $1 billion on 14 more interceptor missiles to be located at Fort Greely, Alaska. Those would join 26 interceptors already at Fort Greely plus four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“While the administration has not made any decision on whether to pursue an additional site, conducting environmental research studies will shorten the timeline to construction, should that decision be made,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a news conference Friday.
Hagel said the United States intends to ensure that its missile defense system stays ahead of North Korea, which appears to be moving more quickly than anticipated toward development of nuclear weapons. North Korea threatened earlier this month to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States or its interests.
Hagel also mentioned the threat posed by Iran, which is developing nuclear weapons.
Collins described North Korea as posing “considerable concern,” given its recent threats, and said Iran could one day have the capacity to strike the United States as it expands the range of its ballistic missile technology.
“Therefore, my colleagues and I have required the administration to begin an 18-month review to identify where it would build an East Coast missile defense site as a part of last year’s defense bill,” Collins said. “I hope Secretary Hagel will announce a commitment to the construction of an East Coast missile defense site soon to signal that this administration is taking the looming threat from Iran with the utmost seriousness.”
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