FORT GREELY - Fort Greely sits a few miles south of Delta Junction, but its impact on jobs and economic activity streaks right through town.
And the post's presence is, under the most recent plans, lined up to stay. The federal government plans to double the number of missile-interceptor rockets housed at Greely in the next couple of years, according to the Missile Defense Agency.
So recent talk that national leaders could review, and possibly reduce funding for, the system leaves details of the future of the military in Delta Junction a bit gray, as it has been at various times since the installation first opened during World War II.
Delta Junction Mayor Mary Leith-Dowling and commander Lt. Col. Chris Chronis said the city and military enjoy a strong relationship. The post is, for one thing, the area's biggest employer. Leith-Dowling, who moved to Delta from Fairbanks right before she entered first grade in 1960, said she can watch the same drivers head through town on their way to work at Greely every morning and recognize the same drivers returning through town every night.
The Army post briefly closed a few years ago before reopening to serve as an anchor for the country's Ground-based Midcourse Defense program, a centerpiece of missile defense in the United States.
"We had a lot of homes with for-sale signs sitting on them," Leith-Dowling said of the temporary closure. "(Fort Greely) is a major part of this community."
The country's missile defense system took off after President George W. Bush announced plans eight years ago to trim the country's nuclear arsenal in favor of stronger defense technology. It worked its way back into the national spotlight this week, partly because of news that North Korea could be preparing to test intercontinental missiles.
Federal lawmakers from Alaska called on Congress this week to support the national missile-defense system.
"I hope that we will never have to prove that our missile defense capability works in response to a missile from a hostile power, but this is absolutely the wrong time in history for our nation to let its guard down," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stated in a news release Wednesday.
Murkowski said through the release she was "especially concerned" about reports that President Barack Obama's administration could look to trim funding for the planned expansion at Fort Greely, saying national leaders had been expected to advance the expansion project in the coming fiscal year.
Greely generates roughly $65 million in economic activity through things like salaries and purchases in Interior Alaska each year, according to Chronis, citing a state estimate. The military built Delta a new public library near City Hall a few years ago. It's lined up to build, partly with help of local contractors, a new community center, 126 new homes and a fire station - all on Greely - at a combined cost of more than $75 million, Chronis said.
All that will sit around the post's 880-acre, heavily secured missile defense complex.
Fort Greely opened during World War II to help run the Lend-Lease aircraft exchange program between the United States and Russia. It since has changed in size and scope more than once.
Today, roughly 200 active-duty guardsmen protect the post's interceptor rockets, which are buried in metal sleeves across a flat, snow-swept field inside the fenced complex. The complex is part industrial landscape and part empty lot, with the only visible sign of a rocket found inside a small warehouse near the site. A single, 54-foot-long white interceptor lays horizontally on a set of tracks next to three diagrams that explain how each rocket is buried in its respective underground silo.
Instead of explosives, each rocket carries an unarmed kill vehicle that weighs only 140 pounds but is designed to speed through space toward an incoming warhead at 15,000 miles an hour and destroy it on impact, said Col. George Bond with the Missile Defense Agency.
Bond cited a metaphor that compares the missile-intercept process as trying to hit a bullet with another bullet.
"But you have to understand, this is one smart bullet," he said, explaining that each kill-vehicle collects data from the system's missile-tracking technology and guides itself in-flight using on-board thrusters.
Chronis said the fort also hosts army police officers and firefighters who help respond to nearly 1,000 emergency calls in the greater Delta area through a mutual-aid relationship with the city.