FORT GREELY, Alaska: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stepped down inside a missile silo here yesterday to get an up-close look at the system he says will protect the United States from an intercontinental ballistic missile threat.
Gates stopped here on his way back from an Asia security summit in Singapore, where North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests dominated the discussions of defense ministers from countries across the region.
Fort Greely, about 100 miles into the Alaskan interior from Fairbanks, is home to one of two ground-based, mid-course defense units housing missile interceptors on the West Coast. The other is at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The stop was planned before North Korea’s recent actions that have caused alarm across the international community, Gates said. But now, he said, the hour-long stop here took on greater importance.
Gates acknowledged on the way here today during a stop in the Philippines that there are signs the North Koreans are “doing something” with another ballistic missile, but said it is unclear what they are doing. But he expressed confidence that this system could stop any potential threat from North Korea.
“If there were a launch from a rogue state such as North Korea, I have good confidence that we would be able to deal with it,” Gates said.
The unit here is the same one that successfully intercepted a mock enemy missile in a December 2008 test, employing a synchronized network of sensors in what officials called the largest and most complex test of the missile defense system to date.
“We have a good capability here,” Gates said after a tour of the site. “I think knowing that we have this and that it becomes more effective in each passing day should be a source of comfort to the American people in an uncertain world.”
Sixteen interceptors are in the ground here, with plans to add two more. Combined with those at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the United States will have 30 such interceptor systems. More could be added if needed, Gates said.
In a brief meeting with reporters, Gates said he has planned nearly $1 billion in the 2010 budget for the development of ground-based interceptors. The budget also allows for developing other missile technologies that protect troops in the field, ships at sea and provide theater defense, he added.
The secretary also said he would like to develop a defense system in Europe with radars in Russia and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic.
A robust missile defense system for the United States at least should take care of tactical and theater needs and also offer protection against a limited intercontinental ballistic missile threat, Gates said.
North Korea’s recent actions have boosted support for the missile defense system, Gates said.
“In the past, there have been a number of skeptics of missile defense on Capitol Hill,” he said, “and I haven’t heard much out of those folks lately. If anything, I think what the North Koreans have done has won more adherence to the importance of our having at least a limited missile defense capability in the Congress.”
Work began on the missile defense installation at Fort Greely in the summer of 2002, originally planning for up to 30 anti-ballistic missiles there by 2010.
The missile defense system is designed to defend the United States against intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile attacks in the mid-course phase of flight, or while they are arching in the exoatmosphere — the region of space just outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The 54-foot-6-inch interceptors look like missiles, but no explosive warheads are attached. The main body acts as a booster vehicle to propel into space the embedded kill vehicle, a 150-pound “smart bullet” that basically steers itself into the path of the oncoming warhead, causing an explosion on impact.
Gates, a former Air Force officer who more than 40 years ago worked with nuclear missiles, was asked by a local journalist what he thought of the interceptor he’d seen in the silo here.
“You know, a missile looks like a missile,” he joked. “You just make sure the pointy end is up.”