Friday’s announcement by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of a buildup at the missile-defense base at Fort Greely, in response to threats by North Korea, has generated cautious enthusiasm over the prospect of an economic boost for the Interior at a time of budget cuts, furloughs and ongoing cutbacks.
Hagel went before the cameras Friday to announce that the Pentagon would be adding another 14 interceptor missiles to the 26 already on standby at Greely’s missile base in response to escalating threats and actions by North Korean leaders over the past several months.
“North Korea in particular has recently made advances in its capabilities and is engaged in a series of irresponsible and reckless provocations,” he said.
Hagel referred to North Korean leaders’ saber-rattling over the past couple of weeks, such as threats to launch nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States, and declaring the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War was null and void, as well as recent successful nuclear tests and rocket launches.
Most observers think it’s highly unlikely that the regime in Pyongyang would actually launch such a strike – and, if it did, that it would actually succeed.
But it’s exactly the sort of scenario involving a limited strike by a small rogue nation that the multi-layered missile defense system built around the base at Greely was designed to counter.
The Pentagon has invested some $18 billion in building the missile base at Greely since 2001. That’s about half of the total cost of the system that includes a worldwide array of sensors and communications networks with major command and control hubs in California and Colorado.
The buildup announced last week calls for spending another billion dollars to bring the total number of interceptors at Greely to 40 by 2017.
That suggests there’ll be some construction and renovation work at Greely, probably mainly on the first complex of silos built a decade ago called missile field 1, which was shut down in 2009 due to chemical leaks, plumbing problems and mold. That work could in turn mean jobs and spending for Delta Junction, the town next door to Greely that has long depended on the post economically.
Delta Mayor Pro Tem Dawn Grossmann says the missile buildup is welcome news, coming as it does during a time when Delta and all other military-dependent communities are feeling the pain of drawdowns, cutbacks and, more recently, the federal budget sequester.
“It’s good to see, especially during this time of sequestration,” Grossmann said. “There’s been a furlough of people on post. There is going to be a drawback on spending and a cut across the board.”
But exactly when work might begin is not known. Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner said in an e-mail Saturday that the agency can’t say when work on the base at Greely will begin, or how much it will cost to accommodate the 14 new missiles, or other details, such as whether repair and renovation of missile field 1 will be contracted-out.
The timeframe is further complicated by the Obama administration’s policy of requiring the contractor, Boeing, to prove that the interceptors can consistently knock a missile out of the sky before the Pentagon will buy more. Observers say the system’s success rate now is about 50 percent.
A test in January was declared successful after the system locked-on to a dummy warhead in space. It was the first test of the system since an unsuccessful effort in December 2010.
All the uncertainty leads some in the Delta business community to hold back, and wait and see.
“I think it’s premature,” says Chuck Creamer, the manager of the Delta office of Fairbanks-based Airport Equipment Rental. Creamer says the company leased a lot of cranes, earthmovers and other equipment during the missile-base construction boom over the past decade. But he says for now, it’s too early to start gearing up for the next missile boomlet.
“I didn’t bring a bunch of extra equipment down here, thinking there was going to be a bunch of work – ’til this has been digested, just a little bit more,” he said.