VANCOUVER, British Columbia - A rail link between Alaska and Canada, proposed as a faster way to transport natural resources, would also enable the United States to support anti-ballistic missile silos and military bases, a new study says.
While supporters are playing up the economic advantages, and the Alaskan and Yukon governments have signed an agreement to study the idea, critics say the military uses are likely to stir opposition in Canada, where the continental missile shield project is unpopular.
The report by a Boston firm says the link would benefit the Canadian and U.S. economies, and make it easier for the U.S. military to move its troops through Canada to worldwide theaters of operation such as North Korea.
The link, which has been debated for years, would require 1,150 miles of new track, from the current Alaska railroad terminus near Alaska's Eielson Air Force Base to Fort St. John or Fort Nelson in northeastern British Columbia. Those two cities are already linked to Canada's national railroad system.
It would enhance support of missile-defense interceptor silos being built at Fort Greely in Alaska, and missile-tracking radar on Shemya, one of the Aleutian Islands, says the report by Charles River Associates, prepared for the Yukon Territory provincial government and obtained by The Associated Press.
Steve Staples, a defense analyst with the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa think tank, suggested Prime Minister Paul Martin would be seen as "duping Canadians" and "allowing participation in missile defense through the back door" if he signed on to a rail link serving U.S. military bases.
Martin's office declined to comment.
Many Canadians fear the anti-missile scheme would lead to the weaponization of space. Martin confounded Washington by opting out of the project in February, saying Canada was committed to the continent's security through NORAD, the U.S.-Canadian early-warning system.
The Charles River report said the missiles in Alaska were a buffer against the perceived threat from North Korea, which claims it has nuclear weapons and is said to be working on a missile that could reach North America.
The railroad, costing $1.15 billion to $2.3 billion, would allow Washington to develop an Alaskan port to station up to three missile defense ships in the northern Pacific, outside Korean territorial waters, the report said.
"An effective defense requires stationing at least one missile defense ship, and more likely two or three, in the northern Pacific outside North Korean territorial waters," it said.
Last week Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie and Alaskan Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to split the estimated $5 million cost of the study, which begins this month and will be finished by June 2006.
In telephone interviews with The Associated Press, both played down the military aspect, saying the link would be primarily commercial and would incorporate fiber-optic communication cables and a potential natural gas pipeline. The report mentions tourism but doesn't highlight it as an important factor for the future.
The report says the railroad could transport the region's platinum, zinc, gold, coal, copper and nickel. "It would help us open up our vast treasure trove of resources," Fentie said.
And it could shave five days off the time it takes to move cargo out of busy ports in Vancouver or Seattle. "We could relieve some of that congestion and pick up a serious portion of that cargo," Murkowski said.
Fentie noted that U.S. troops and materiel already move through the Yukon by truck. The highway between Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and Alaska was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1942, when a Japanese invasion was feared.