AUGUSTA, Maine — Although discussion about revamping the nation’s homeland defense strategy and possibly building a missile base in northern Maine is preliminary, Caribou officials are ready to welcome the development.

Caribou Town Manager Austin Bleess said Tuesday that the City Council will discuss the issue at its meeting on Monday, specifically whether the city will throw its support behind the missile base and the more than 200 jobs that could come with it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to make this happen in the Caribou area,” said Bleess. “This has been on our radar for a while but given the new mention and sense of urgency from the secretary of defense, it’s something we need to discuss. We want to try to get out in front of this and help promote the Caribou area to the Pentagon.”

Last September, the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council, a group comprised of scientists, engineers and high-level military experts, released a 260-page report on the nation’s worldwide missile defense strategy. It listed deficiencies in the country’s missile defense shield and identified sites in the Northeastern U.S. — including Caribou and Rome, N.Y. — as ideal locations for a base capable of intercepting and destroying incoming long-range missiles before they hit American soil.

And then on Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel mentioned Caribou again, this time in the context of ordering a review of the nation’s defense strategy in light of defense spending cuts driven by federal budget sequestration that took effect March 1. The thrust of the review is to ensure the country is safe from potential nuclear attacks from countries such as North Korea and Iran.

Caribou neighbors Limestone in Aroostook County, which is the location of the former Loring Air Force Base, which was closed by the Pentagon in 1994. For many years, one of Loring’s chief missions was air defense. The base was a major part of the nation’s Cold War-era Strategic Air Command.

Bleess said that other than the former Air Force base, several federal properties in and around Caribou could house a missile defense base, including a former Coast Guard facility.

“We honestly haven’t heard a whole lot about this,” said Bleess. “This area has taken a major economic hit since Loring closed back in the ’90s. We’re rebounding from that and now the economic crisis. If we could do something like this and get 220 to 250 new jobs, that would be huge for us.”

William Tasker, director of the Caribou Area Chamber of Commerce, was enthusiastic about the prospect of a new missile base in the Caribou area.

“There is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained to be selected by the Department of Defense for such a strategic initiative in our area,” Tasker said in a written response Tuesday to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “On top of the financial stability such a selection would be for Caribou, our northeastern proximity makes perfect sense in being a part of our national defense system. This is what made closing Loring seem so short-sighted in the first place.”

The Department of Defense has ordered Environmental Impact Statements for building missile bases on the East Coast, but has not disclosed which sites it is considering, according to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who serves on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

“North Korea is of considerable concern, given the threats from its regime,” Collins said in a written statement in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “At the same time, Iran continues to increase the range of its ballistic missiles so that one day those missiles can reach the United States. Therefore, my colleagues and I have required the [Obama] administration to begin an 18-month review to identify where it would build an East Coast missile defense site as a part of last year’s defense bill. … Limestone was one of two sites identified in a widely respected and well-received missile defense report by the National Academy of Science last year. I believe it would compete well against other potential locations.”

Though northern Maine is in the conversation about missile defense, most of the Pentagon’s attention appears to be focused on defending against North Korea in California and Alaska. But the looming threat from Iran may require additional missile silos on the East Coast as well, according to a March 15 New York Times article. The idea isn’t without its critics at the state and national levels.

Some argue that the technology is still under development and not consistent enough to justify major spending. Others see the idea as an escalation in an already troubled relationship between the U.S. and its enemies.

In a press release circulated Tuesday, the Maine-based Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space called the recent announcements “a corporate-driven solution searching for a problem” and suggested a cozy relationship between Boeing Corp. and Congress. Bruce Gagnon, the group’s coordinator, said neither North Korea or Iran has missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and even if they did, the country’s existing arsenal is enough of a deterrent.

“This entire story is a great illustration how our democracy, and our economy, have become captives of the military industrial complex,” said Gagnon. “We are reminded of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to us to ‘beware’ of the power of the weapons industry. Further attacks on social progress in the U.S. will be necessary to pay for these boondoggle deployments.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.