FORT GREELY, Alaska -- Federal officials broke ground Saturday on six underground missile interceptor silos as part of the new national missile defense system.
It will take more than two years to install the silos 115 feet beneath the earth at Fort Greely for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.
"We need this for the defense of our country," said Brigadier Gen. John W. Holly, program director for the GMD Joint Program Office.
The Fort Greely site, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks in the Alaska interior, will at first be used for testing. But the Pentagon hopes to have it ready as an emergency anti-missile system by September 2004, should the need arise.
The Bush administration's hurry to put a rudimentary system in place in Alaska by 2004 comes 19 years after President Reagan proposed a national defense against nuclear missile attack. Critics suggest presidential politics is the driving force behind the timetable.
The project's stated purpose is to defend against the use of a limited number of nuclear missiles by rogue nations such as North Korea, and is designed to eliminate mutual destruction as a strategy, said Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
The actual missile test bed work will be done by Boeing and its subcontractors, while Fluor Alaska will handle the general contracting.
"They're just going to start digging holes," said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, spokesman for GMD.
When completed, the six silos, about 100 feet apart, will each have a 24-foot circumference and hold 70-foot-long missiles. There is room for 100 missile beds on the site. Fluor will install roads, fencing, support buildings and a power substation.
Officials say the work at Fort Greely is expected to cost $325 million. The full system is estimated to cost $64 billion, including a sophisticated "X-band" radar station in the Aleutian Islands and a new satellite system to detect launches.
Protesters waited at the main gate of Fort Greely and at a pulloff along the highway about two miles north of the entrance. No Nukes North, a Fairbanks-based anti-nuclear group, organized the protest, which began June 6 as a peace caravan across Alaska.
The protesters have been in the area since Thursday voicing objections to the GMD as an offensive, not defensive program, its expense and the nuclear dangers.