Alaskans concerned about North Korea's missiles
Sunday, June 7, 2009
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Alaskans are concerned over the prospect that North Korea is getting ready to test a long-range missile that could reach strategic targets in their home state.
And they're not buying Defense Secretary Robert Gates' assertion during a visit this past week to one of Alaska's many military installations that the missile is not a threat to the United States.
"I think we would definitely be a target because of the oil and the military," said Dale Walberg, owner of a small greenhouse business in Eagle River. "They are just so secretive. What do we really know?"
There's been no direct threat against Alaska or anywhere else, but the missile North Korea is believed to be assembling for a test may have a range of 4,000 miles, putting Hawaii and much of Alaska within reach.
Alaska's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, have both Air Force and Army bases. There's also Fort Greely, home of the Missile Defense Complex. The U.S. plans to store 26 ground-based missile interceptors in silos at the base, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks.
Other high-profile potential targets would include Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field, or Valdez, the terminus of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline.
Bert Cottle, mayor of Valdez, where 16 percent of the nation's domestic oil production is loaded onto tankers for delivery to the West Coast, said he checked with two military leaders in Alaska to get their take on the developing missile situation and was told everything is status quo.
"We will wait for further updates," he said.
In the meantime, the state's political leaders are using the missile situation to send a message to the Obama administration: Maintain a strong military presence in Alaska.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, sent a letter to Gates urging him to reconsider a decision to not complete construction of a second missile defense field at Greely and to place a cap on F-22 fighters at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
"We are sending the wrong message to our enemies by stopping the placement of these interceptors," Young's letter said. "While 30 interceptors may be enough to counter the current threat from North Korea, it is clear that it will not be enough in the future."
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he would continue to push for the installation of the final 14 interceptors.
"It may be just one missile positioned today, but who knows what surprise North Korea will announce next?" Begich said.
Dan Goure, vice president of defense studies at the Lexington Institute in Alexandria, Va., said Alaskans should be outraged by the Obama administration decision to scale back Greely's missile defense program.
"The most desirable targets these guys can hit are all in Alaska and the system that is being deployed is inadequate," Goure said. "You may say I will trust the president to stand up to that threat, but do the people of Alaska want to be put on that front line?"
William English, 72, of Eagle River, thinks the threat from North Korea's long-range missile is real.
"I think they are going to find a target to shoot it at, right here. You lose Prudhoe Bay and the state is gone," said English, who worked as an electrical engineer on the North Slope for 26 years.
English thinks the North Korean leader is "crazy as hell."
About 15 miles east of Fairbanks, the town of North Pole has just 2,100 residents but Mayor Doug Isaacson thinks it would likely be on North Korea's list of attractive targets. It's less than 10 miles from the Army's Fort Wainwright with 7,180 soldiers and from Eielson Air Force Base with 3,010 military personnel. It also has two oil refineries.
"I am sure that if anybody is looking at strategic locations North Pole is probably on the radar," he said.
Isaacson said he has contacted public affairs officers at Fort Wainwright and local borough officials and department heads to discuss emergency plans.
"Right now, I don't think there is much consideration that there is a serious threat, but having said that everything is possible and every eventuality needs to be looked at," he said.
In Hawaii, where the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ushered the U.S. into World War II, people are more concerned with the state's high unemployment rate, which has doubled over the past year, and the governor's order furloughing state employees to cope with a sharp revenue decline.
Hawaiians also doubt North Korea would fire a missile at the U.S.
"I think it's bluffing," said Tim Luster, a 45-year-old in the music retail business. "It doesn't really make sense to me that they would directly attack the United States. It seems a little outlandish."
But in Anchorage, Francis Merriman, a 61-year-old boat captain, thinks the North Korea missile threat must be taken very seriously.
"Do they have nuclear warheads?" Merriman asked. "Don't we have any way of shooting them down?"