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Missile defense system takes shape

Snow fences help keep drifts from piling up on the missile silos. Heat-sensing security devices that monitor the edges of this 800-acre installation are sometimes triggered by wayward moose.

Four years after President Bush ordered a limited missile defense system to be built and nearly a quarter-century after Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, this sub-Arctic outpost is where progress on the long-embattled missile system is perhaps most evident, military officials say.

Eleven interceptor missiles are installed in underground silos, and there are plans to expand to 38. This summer, when North Korea signaled that it planned to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, Fort Greely, which has never fired a test missile, was put on alert status, ostensibly ready to respond if necessary.

After North Korea's test either failed or was aborted, "there was a little bit of a letdown" at the base, said Lt. Col Edward E. Hildreth, commander of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion of the Alaska National Guard, "because we were prepared."

That assertion, echoed by other commanders at Fort Greely during a limited tour of the base recently, comes a little more than three months after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Fort Greely and expressed caution about the program's readiness. Critics have noted that some tests of the system elsewhere have failed and a recent successful one in California lacked decoys and other uncertainties that would make homing in on an enemy missile difficult. Fort Greely's missile defense system has not been declared fully operational.

Even as questions persist about capability, the missile defense program is pushing forward at a cost of at least $9-billion a year. About a third of that goes to the kind of operation that is based at Fort Greely, called Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, which is intended to shoot down enemy missiles while they travel through space. Vandenberg Air Force Base in California also houses two interceptors, but military experts say Fort Greely is better situated to interrupt the likely flight path of a missile from Asia or the Middle East.

Hildreth said he was well aware of criticism that missile defense was far from a perfected program. He said Fort Greely operated in a balance between operational mode and construction. A 12th interceptor will be installed this month.

"We build a little, test a little," he said. "It's fluid."

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