FORT GREELY -- On a tour of this remote Alaska base where three-stage interceptor missiles are primed for quick launch, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said his proposed $1.2 billion cut from missile defense next year doesn't leave Alaska or Hawaii vulnerable to an attack from North Korea.
Gates, invited to Alaska by Sen. Mark Begich, said the administration intends to focus on perfecting missile defense technologies that show promise of working, like the ground-based interceptors at Greely, while abandoning others that are more science fiction than reality, like airborne laser weapons.
"I know that we have this capability, and as it becomes more effective with each passing day it should be a source of comfort for the American people in an uncertain world," Gates told reporters after emerging from the depths of a 70-foot missile silo with Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage.
The cuts, proposed for the next fiscal year, would halt construction of a 20-silo missile field at Greely -- the third at the facility -- and stop procurement of new interceptors. The base currently has 16 interceptors deployed in its two completed fields with 10 more missiles scheduled for delivery for the remaining empty silos. That's 14 fewer than were originally planned for the site.
But Gates said there's still about $1 billion in the budget for the ground-based system at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California plus related radar and control centers.
North Korea's recent testing of a nuclear bomb and six short-range missiles, plus its apparent preparations to test a long-range missile theoretically capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii, has given some urgency to the United States' defense systems.
Gates said there's little immediate threat of a North Korean launch against a U.S. target but added that the future is far less certain. Pressed about his level of confidence in the current state of missile defense, Gates said, "You are, to a considerable extent, a prisoner of geometry," referring to whether an attacking missile's trajectory could be crossed by an interceptor.
"But I would say that 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."
Begich said the stepped-up testing program will mean more activity at the state-owned rocket launch facility at Kodiak. Though originally built to launch commercial satellites into polar orbit, the facility's location has proved valuable in simulating missile launches from Korea for interceptor test launches from Vandenberg. Officials had once planned to launch interceptors from Kodiak, but that program never took off.
Begich said the testing schedule should answer congressional critics of ground-based missile defense who argue that the system should have been more thoroughly developed before missiles were deployed. Gates himself agreed that the defense department rushed to procure several missile defense systems before any proof they could actually work.
The prime example, he said, was the purchase of an airborne laser-beam weapon mounted in a 747 aircraft.
"The operational concept doesn't work because to be of any value, for example, against Iran, that 747 would have to orbit inside Iran -- and I don't think they're going to allow that," Gates said. "Same way with North Korea."
The last test of the system in place at Fort Greely occurred Dec. 5 and was a partial success. The target rocket launched from Kodiak was supposed to use countermeasures to fool the interceptor, but the decoys failed to deploy. Looking at the single target and closing at speeds of 14,000 mph, the interceptor -- essentially a bullet -- scored a direct hit only inches from the spot on the tumbling dummy warhead where its nuclear payload would have been.
Begich noted that the budget process is still months from conclusion, and changes will certainly be made. But regardless of what happens in 2010, he said, the silos in Fort Greely will be part of the U.S. defense for a long time to come.
Gates stopped over in Alaska on his way home from a visit to Singapore that stretched to three days because of a breakdown on his plane. He also stopped in the Philippines before landing at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage for a visit with about 350 local military personnel. He then boarded a C-17 transport with Begich for the 40-minute flight to Fort Greely.
Gates' reaction to the open-silo missile tour was rather ho-hum compared to the media representatives who crowded around for a rare view of the usually off-limits site.
"Forty years ago, I was a lieutenant in an Air Force base that had Minuteman missiles," Gates said, explaining his lack of awe. "A missile looks like a missile. You just make sure the pointy end is up."
By RICHARD MAUER