HAARP granted last-minute reprieve as Air Force considers handoff

Dermot Cole

The U.S. Air Force said Wednesday it will give research institutions and other agencies more time to try to save the $290 million HAARP research facility in Gakona, Alaska.

An Air Force spokesman said the process of closing the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, which had been slated to begin this week, will be delayed for at least several weeks and perhaps longer.

The agency said it may put off dismantling the site for up to 10 months to allow a transfer to another agency, an option that has been promoted by scientists from the University of Alaska and around the world.

HAARP, backed by the late Sen. Ted Stevens when he wielded great power over the defense budget, has been used both for basic research of the ionosphere and for investigation of communications and satellite technology.

"We will proceed with removal of government property not essential to operations and will seek to reduce maintenance costs through additional storage of equipment and winterization," Air Force spokesperson Ed Gulick said. "Air Force leadership is currently considering the option of deferring the dismantling for up to 10 months to allow time for a potential transfer to another entity."

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pressed the Pentagon to consider the transfer option instead of taking the site apart.

In May, University of Alaska President Pat Gamble wrote that the university could take ownership of the facility directly or through a lease, or it could work with others in the research community to develop options for covering operational costs.

He said that the main purpose of HAARP is to study techniques through which the U.S. could use "high power radio transmissions to manipulate Earth's ionosphere for its strategic advantage."

"The ionosphere is an integral part of the modern battlefield -- it affects GPS navigation, satellite communication, missile tracking radars, orbital surveillance and submarine communication, to name just a few applications," he said.

"I am convinced that with a little more time and broader range of discussions within the U.S. and internationally, we can develop a pay-for-use business plan to ensure the long-term availability of this laboratory," Gamble said.

HAARP directs electric power generated on the site to 180 antennas spread across 30 acres. The transmissions heat electrons in the ionosphere, creating changes that are monitored back on Earth.

Reach Dermot Cole at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.