HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – What was once considered the foolish, costly act of a land-hungry politician is now considered to be one of the most profitable and strategic moves in U.S. history.
The U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, a transaction negotiated by then Secretary of State William Seward, was initially ridiculed in the press as “Seward’s folly” because the arctic region was thought by many to be unusable and uninhabitable.
Fast forward more than 150 years to the present, and Alaska is not only one of the richest states in the nation but also a key part of America’s missile defense program.
Precisely because of its remote location and proximity to nearly all potential adversaries – Russia is just across the Bering Strait, while China, North Korea and Iran are all much closer to Alaska than any other point in the continental U.S. – military efforts in the region have expanded rapidly over the last ten years.
The Missile Defense Agency recently unveiled the new Long-Range Discrimination Radar at Clear Space Force Station, Alaska, and is currently working in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District to construct a missile field housing 20 anti-ballistic interceptor missiles and expand an existing field to house two additional interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska.
The engineering experts at the Ballistic Missile Defense Mandatory Center of Expertise at the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, have provided critical technical support on both of these projects, said Bret Styers, senior program manager for the BMD-MCX.
“These are very complex projects requiring a tremendous amount of problem-solving and technical oversight,” he said. “Huntsville Center has the experience and expertise to handle these types of challenges.”
In August, Styers and other members of the project delivery team, including representatives from USACE Alaska District and MDA, led Col. Sebastien P. Joly, Huntsville Center commander, on a tour of these project sites to explain the challenges and share the lessons learned.
In addition to the remoteness, which can be a “logistical nightmare,” Styers explained, the project delivery team has to contend with a limited construction season. In Alaska, the typical construction season is June through September as the winter temperatures and precipitation are generally too extreme to ensure safety and quality work.
Even summer can present weather-related challenges in the Alaskan interior where Fort Greely and Clear Space Force Station are located. Fort Greely is just 120 miles from the Arctic Circle, making it one of the coldest places in the United States. While average temperatures in the summer months can rise to 70, the winds, which seem to come and go without warning, add another level of difficulty in vertical construction.
In July of this year, a random wind storm blew through Fort Greely, disrupting construction and damaging equipment, said Stephen Augustin, quality assurance representative for USACE Alaska District.
“The temperatures were great, but the wind was moving through at 80 miles per hour,” he said. “It picked up a tent that was tied down and secured with concrete and threw it 120 feet.”
These kinds of weather disruptions make it difficult to meet deadlines, making it even more important to have experts on the team who know how to plan for and work around these challenges.
“When it comes to missile defense, there are very aggressive timelines driven by real-world threats,” said Styers. “That pressure can make it difficult for a district to execute a project for the Missile Defense Agency, but it’s where we can be helpful.”
The Alaska District is the executing district for all of the MDA construction at Clear SFS and Fort Greely, aside from the actual radar and missile system. This includes the structures surrounding these vital components, the mechanical electrical buildings, power plants, communication centers and more. Each of these facilities has had unique requirements, and Huntsville Center has assisted the Alaska District with ensuring those requirements are met.
“This is a high seismic area with lots of earthquakes, so all of the facilities had to be designed with that in mind,” said Styers. “And of course, when you have a building that houses a missile, you have to consider accidental explosions and design with those blast loads in mind.”
Another structural challenge was the need for High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) shielding. HEMP, caused by a nuclear detonation in or above the earth’s atmosphere, can induce extremely high voltages and currents into electrical and electronic systems, destroying most unprotected power systems. Because these missile defense systems are especially important in the case of a nuclear event, technical engineers incorporated various forms of HEMP shielding in the design of nearly all surrounding structures.
Joly, who previously served as post engineer and later company commander of the C/84th Engineer Battalion at Fort Richardson outside Anchorage, Alaska, said his August visit and communication with the experts on the ground provided insight that will be helpful in the near future as Huntsville Center leverages this experience to better support the U.S. Air Force’s new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or LGM35A Sentinel, program.
“Huntsville Center not only provided expertise that aided in the success of these projects in Alaska, but we also gained additional expertise and experience because of this work,” said Joly. “The lessons learned will be invaluable to future support of missile-defense projects.”
The Air Force’s newest weapons system, a fully integrated launch, flight and infrastructure system with modern command and control features, will eventually replace the current ICBM fleet of Minuteman III missiles, which was developed in the 1970s. The system will be housed at existing missile bases: F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; Malmstrom AFB, Montana; and Minot AFB, North Dakota.
“These locations aren’t as challenging as Alaska, but they still present some difficulties related to climates, and we will be dealing with issues that we now have extensive experience with – blast design, HEMP shielding, very aggressive schedules,” said Styers. “Huntsville Center has been providing innovative engineering solutions to these problems in Alaska, and we will continue to do so no matter where the mission takes us.”