Sullivan seeks answers on missile defense plans

  • Former Missile Defense Agency-Alaska Region Director Col. Thom Besch, stands next to an inert missile interceptor as he explains how the missile works in a storage facility at the missile defense site at Ft. Greely in 2007. Sen. Dan Sullivan is seeking answers to the future of the Ground-based Missile Defense System after a contract with Boeing for the kill vehicles atop the interceptors was canceled in August. (Photo/File/AP)

Sen. Dan Sullivan wants Alaskan contractors to know that the more than $200 million expansion project at Fort Greely is moving ahead “full bore,” despite mixed messages coming out of the Pentagon.

The Associated Press reported in late August that Department of Defense officials decided to cancel a contract with Boeing to develop a new “kill vehicle” for intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, interceptors housed at Fort Greely because of problems with the aerospace giant’s current design and related cost issues. The contract was officially canceled Aug. 22.

Fort Greely is at the center of the country’s ground-based missile defense system with 40 of the 44 active ICBM interceptors housed in underground silos at the Interior Alaska Army installation.

Sullivan said in an Aug. 29 meeting with the Journal that he wanted to quell concerns he heard after the news of the kill vehicle contract broke from those working on a project to expand the number of interceptors at Fort Greely from 40 to 60, as Congress directed in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

After making calls to Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill and other senior Pentagon officials, Sullivan said he was assured the expansion work at Fort Greely wouldn’t be stopped along with the kill vehicle contract.

“We continue and will continue into the future to be the cornerstone of America’s missile defense — no ifs, ands or buts,” Sullivan said of Alaska and Fort Greely.

“They got silos, the need to put in what they call sleeves; the need to wire them… That’s continuing. That’s a $200 million project, just that expansion. It’s not done yet but it’s getting close.”

In addition to the work at Fort Greely, the Missile Defense Agency is in the midst of spending another $325 million over six years at Clear Air Force Station just south of Fairbanks.

Clear is a radar base near Nenana along the Parks Highway.

The money there is going towards installing a new power plant and missile detection radar system.

Clear Air Force Station is on the electrical grid; however, the upgraded power plant is a backup facility that will be protected against electromagnetic pulse weapons that could be used to render electrical systems useless, according to former MDA Director Vice Admiral James Syring.

When the long range discrimination radar being installed at Clear —expected to be done in the early 2020s — is done it will be “the most sophisticated ground-based radar system on planet Earth,” according to Sullivan, and is focused on detecting ballistic missile threats.

As for the kill vehicles on the interceptors, he said Pentagon officials want updated kill vehicles to match the ever-evolving threats from adversarial nations and a request for proposals should be let soon to the aerospace companies capable of performing the work. Sullivan added that he was assured the new kill vehicles and associated rocket booster are compatible with the infrastructure at Fort Greely.

He planned to get detailed, classified briefings on the status of the ICBM interceptor program when he returned to Washington, D.C., in September after spending most of the August recess in Alaska followed by a week of training at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina as part of his duties as a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Sullivan serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and chairs the Readiness Subcommittee.

To him, the worries over whether or not the work at Fort Greely was going to continue came down to a poorly executed communications strategy on the part of Pentagon officials.

The incomplete information that came out initially resulted in the ballistic missile interceptors at Fort Greely and California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base being conflated with work to oppose the newer, hypersonic missiles China and Russia are believed to be developing.

The hypersonic weapons fly at a faster speed and on a much lower trajectory than ICBMs and therefore are beyond what the current interceptors can respond to, according to Sullivan.

He said the interceptors at Fort Greely are meant to counter threats from “rogue nations” such as North Korea.

“I was very mad about the rollout. I was not given a heads up about it but I knew they were looking at it,” he said about the interceptor redesign.

He highlighted the significance of a successful test in March when two ICBM interceptors were launched from Vandenberg and destroyed the faux warhead exactly as prescribed. The first defense missile struck the dummy threat, while the second honed in on the largest piece of leftover debris and destroyed it.

Sullivan described it as “a bullet hitting a bullet in space, essentially.”

There are also plans to increase the frequency of missile tests at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak.

In July, the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the MDA conducted a successful test of the Israeli Arrow-3 Weapon System at Kodiak, according to a statement from the MDA.

“Maybe at the end of the day this was the smart thing to do,” he said of the interceptor changes, “but what I’ve been able to tell people here is that on the construction that’s ongoing, which is kind of all over, and the continued use of Kodiak as a really important place, we’re full bore.”

Milcon funding to border wall

Secretary of Defense Esper issued a memo to Defense agency leaders Sept. 3 that included a long list of military construction projects that will be deferred as money is pulled from them to fulfill President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to build a $3.6 billion wall along the southern border with Mexico.

Trump issued the declaration in February and projects at Fort Greely Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks will have $102 million pulled from them to support wall construction.

At Eielson, $74 million to repair two of the base’s central heat and power plan boilers and $19 million to upgrade the combat arms training and maintenance, or CATM, range will be redirected. At Fort Greely, $8 million to support expansion of the installation’s Missile Field No. 1 will also be sent south.

However, the contracts for that work was not scheduled to be awarded until early 2020 and early 2021, according to Esper’s memo.

Sullivan has been critical of congressional Democrats for blocking attempts to fund additional border security through the normal appropriations process.

His spokesman, Mike Anderson, wrote via email that the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate in June 27 on an 86-8 vote, authorizes $3.6 billion to restore the repurposed funds.

“Going forward, Sen. Sullivan will work with his colleagues on the Appropriations committees to fund this initiative,” Anderson wrote.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/11/2019 - 9:14am

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