Business is Bearish, as Alaska Aerospace Seeks New Customers in Kodiak

Last Updated Apr 21, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

Since the Reagan administration, the U.S. has invested tens of billions of dollars in missile defense; it was well-funded during the Clinton administration and President Bush kept up the pace.

These programs are managed by what is now known as the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The primary test facilities and ranges were the U.S. Army base at Kwajlein Atoll in the Pacific; the Navy base on Kauai, Hawaii; and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

As with many large Federal expenditures, though, strict military necessity was not all that mattered when it came to deciding a new launch site.

Alaska's former Republican Senator, Ted Stevens, who lost election in 2008 when he was convicted of receiving illegal gifts, was a master at funneling funds to his state. He managed to get a missile defense launch facility placed on Kodiak Island, about 200 miles south of Anchorage. Kodiak is the second-largest island in the U.S. but has fewer than 14,000 residents. Human residents, that is -- the island is also known for its bears and other wildlife. Fishing is the major industry. The test range was controversial due to its effect on the environment and wildlife, like the pictured Kodiak bear.

The state-chartered Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation built and managed the Kodiak Launch Complex. Opened in 1998, it supported eight separate missile launches in which it would launch test target missiles towards Hawaii and California for practice interceptions. These tests were part of the Ground Based Mid-Course Intercept (GBM) program that the Obama Administration stopped expansion of in the 2010 budget. Now the MDA is planning to stop using the site when the current contract expires and begin launching the test targets from the Kwajelein atoll.
Without the MDA program, the Kodiak site will have to attract other military customers (the Air Force has used its services) or find private investment or go idle. It is considered one of the four available U.S. space launch sites that could support NASA or commercial space launches; it has proved capable, for example, of launching satellites. But such a transformation might also require the state to invest money in marketing, site development and subsidies -- and even in oil-rich Alaska, the economic tank is running low.

What to do with Kodiak is hardly a unique problem; in fact, it is a recurring one with such facilities. Once they are shut down, it's always a puzzle what to do with them. The U.S. is dotted with closed military bases, factories and support complexes. In some cases, there is no other possible job they can do. The large uranium refining factories from World War II at Oak Ridge, TN are a good example. One building, almost a mile long on each side, sits empty waiting to be cleaned up and demolished.

The saga of the Kodiak site is a case study in that sad piece of wisdom: Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

  • Matthew Potter

    Matthew Potter is a resident of Huntsville, Ala., where he works supporting U.S. Army aviation programs. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he began work as a defense contractor in Washington D.C. specializing in program management and budget development and execution. In the last 15 years Matthew has worked for several companies, large and small, involved in all aspects of government contracting and procurement. He holds two degrees in history as well as studying at the Defense Acquisition University. He has written for Seeking Alpha and at his own website, DefenseProcurementNews.com.