Pentagon officials are coming to western Maine this week to gather public input regarding a possible missile defense site in Redington Township.
The Franklin County site - which already operates as a survival training facility for the Navy - is one of four locations being considered in the eastern half of the United States. The others are Camp Ravenna in Ohio, Fort Custer in Michigan and Fort Drum in New York state.
Officials say the base would house up 60 long range missiles. There are already two bases established on the West Coast - in Alaska and California - designed to protect the U.S. from attacks by "rogue" states like North Korea and Iran.
"These are very, very advanced interceptor systems," says Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. He says the missiles, once launched, are steered by a command and control system into the path of incoming ballistic missiles while they're in space. No explosives are required, he says: Incoming missiles would be destroyed by the impact of the collision with the interceptor.
However, Lehner says the prospect of a missile defense site in the east is still a long way off. "There's been no decision to build a new interceptor site," he says. "The sites that we have now in Alaska and California are capable of defending our homeland against what we think would be a limited ballistic missile attack from countries like Iran and North Korea."
But he says the rationale behind having a site nearer the East Coast is that it would be better placed to deal with threats from the Middle East, particularly Iran. If a new base is built, Lehner says there would be no missile testing done from the site - the only missiles launched would be those that are actually being deployed.
Lehner says this week's public meetings in Maine are part of a directive from Congress to draw up an Environmental Impact Statement for the four possible sites, which were narrowed down from a list that was initially in the hundreds.
"What we want to do is get input on what the public and the local governments are concerned about, in terms of water use, land use, electricity, infrastructure, socio-economic, all of those things that we want to find out about, so we can include those in our study," he says.
"There will be jobs related to this - I'm not sure how many, that's going to be one of our questions. What kind of construction jobs, what kind of permanent jobs?" says Tom Saviello, a Republican state senator whose district includes Redington Township, which is near the picturesque Rangeley Lakes region. He says he views the potential base in much the same way as he might regard a proposed factory in his district: There are number of questions to be resolved before he can come to a decision.
"What happens if there's a fire on the base? Does my local fire department go and fight it in the Kingfield area, Carrabasset Valley, or do they have their own fire department? Those are simple questions, but they need to be answered," Saviello says.
Franklin County resident William Rice, a former defense industry employee, also has questions. He wants to know more about the potential risks of transporting 55-foot-long rockets, plus their fuel, to a location in remote western Maine.
"This highly toxic and explosive material would be transported under cover of darkness in a state that is 80 percent forest over curvy mountain," Rice said. "This procedure alone should be a major concern for all the fire, rescue and law enforcement within the entire state of Maine, as far as I'm concerned."
Bruce Gagnon, from Maine Veterans for Peace, has additional concerns regarding the true motivation of why the U.S. might want interceptor bases in the first place. He says they give America more offensive options by removing an enemy's second strike capability.
"Missile defense is a key element in U.S. first strike attack planning," Gagnon said. "Tt really is not a defensive system at all; it's the shield that goes along with the U.S. first strike sword."
Gagnon, and others, have also raised questions about the reliability of the missiles, pointing out that number of tests have been unsuccessful. The Pentagon's Rick Lehner says confidence in the system is high, pointing out that the most recent test - in June - was successful.
Public meetings in Maine are scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday in Rangeley and Thursday in Farmington.