Air Force Delays Scrapping Research Facility; UAF Seeks Takeover Deal

The Air Force has agreed to delay its plans to demolish a $300 million research facility near Glennallen to allow more time to work out a deal to transfer ownership to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

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The 30-acre HAARP facility is located near Gakona, about 20 miles northeast of Glennallen. Credit

Air Force Secretary Deborah James told Sen. Lisa Murkowski Wednesday that the service will halt dismantling the so-called HAARP facility until May 2015. HAARP stands for High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. It’s used to conduct experiments on the Earth’s ionosphere.

The delay is good news for Bob McCoy. He’s the director of UAF’s Geophysical Institute, and he and officials with other universities and science agencies have been negotiating with the Pentagon for more than a year now to hand over the HAARP.

“We’ve been reaching out across the country,” McCoy said, “trying to represent the scientific community, to say to the U.S. government, ‘Hey, this is important. This is the most exquisite facility of its kind. Please don’t destroy it.’”

UAF already owns a share of the HAARP facility, along with the Air Force, Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The 30-acre facility includes an array of 180 high-power-transmitting antennas that alter the Earth’s ionosphere to effect auroral displays and test communications and surveillance technologies, among other things.

McCoy says university officials and others in the scientific community decided to seek full ownership of the HAARP facility after the Air Force announced last year that it no longer needs the facility and would scrap it.

David Walker is the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for science, technology and engineering. He told Murkowski during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing in May that the service intended to dismantle the HAARP facility this summer to avoid winterization costs.

“We would like to get the critical equipment out of the site before the winter,” Walker said. “The harsh winter in Alaska does lead to a very costly winterization to maintain the site. We’d like to avoid that if we can.”

McCoy says he’s hopeful the UAF consortium can work out a deal. He said his immediate concern is to halt the dismantling and removal of diagnostic equipment that monitors the effects of the high-power transmitting antennas.

“You need diagnostic instruments – optical, radars – to see what’s been happening, to do the science,” he said.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the Air Force has or will halt the dismantling of that part of the facility.

Walker told Murkowski in the May hearing that the Air Force would consider handing over the facility. But not if it was required to continue funding its operation and maintenance.

“We have gotten interest from the university in Fairbanks,” Walker said. “However, the interest that we have (heard expressed) is that they will run it if we fund it. Which is unfortunately in this fiscal environment that we’re in right now, this is not an area that we have any need for in the future and don’t see it would be a good use of Air Force S&T (science and technology) funds in the future.”

McCoy says he and the other researchers know they’ll have to operate the HAARP facility on a tight budget.

He says UAF and its partners are developing a business plan that would cut the estimated $5 million annual operation and maintenance costs, much of which went to paying for the facility’s diesel-fired generators.

“Five million dollars was a figure that we came up with, based on information we had from the past, and information we got from the Air Force,” he said. “What we’ve been looking at lately (is) the last campaign that was run by DARPA a few weeks ago. (It) was run on a shoestring. So we think that number we may be able to run it for much less, much more economically.”

McCoy says the business plan would be modeled on many of the same practices that UAF employs in the operation of the NASA-owned Poker Flat Rocket Range.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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