West of Woolwich: The Wall is still standing part two

Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: The Wall is still standing part two

Reflections on the Cold War’s footprints …

just down the street and around the corner (Part Two)


by Fred Kahrl

About a month ago, will very little fanfare, a consortium of Maine businessmen announced plans for converting a 1500-acre former U.S. Air Force radar site in northern Maine into a wind farm. Two competing bidders were still in the race late last year, but the group that includes the President of the Cianbro Corp. may have the edge.


 There have been so many wind farm proposals floating through the Maine atmosphere of late that only the abutters to any suggested site seem to get excited any more. In fact, I doubt that 1 in 100 natives could point to Moscow on a map … cold turkey. Most travelers heading up Rte. 201 for Jackman and the Canadian Border might mistake Moscow as a part of Bingham, which most Mainers associate with the Bingham Dam, Maine’s largest Hydro Power generator.

Moscow, in fact, is only 45 square miles, with a population of about 570 … median family income $26,500.

In the 1970’s the Government set aside 1500 acres for the Cold War defensive radar site. You can imagine what it was like for the town father’s when that big a parcel like this went tax-exempt in a town that had only 30,000 acres to start with!


Most Maine towns with military installations in residence don’t mind losing taxable land because most such developments have personnel attached who spend money locally that more than offsets the loss of taxes from undeveloped land. In fact, sometimes there are additional government subsidies for impacted communities … in lieu of taxes … especially if the military children go to local schools.

No such luck in Moscow … the enormous arrays were serviced by a computer center 70 miles away in Bangor via dedicated microwave links. Although the site was provided with an impressive array of generators, they were there only should Central Maine Power be compromised. In the less than 20 years of operation, the Air Force bought an enormous amount of power to operate the radars, and the generators were only run for periodic testing.

There were two such sites in the U.S. … Maine’s and another in Oregon.  The Moscow site could detect approaching enemy aircraft and missiles from Greenland to Cuba, and beyond. Yes … one site, all that coverage. They used a technology that allowed the radars … for the first time … to see “over the horizon” (hence “OTH”) by bouncing vast amounts of energy off the troposphere and using powerful computers to analyze the tiny returning signals.


[Some of you will ask why there is a big blank space in the OTH coverage in Northern Canada. This area is still covered by the modern iteration of the Cold War “DEW Line” … now called the North Warning Line and operated by the Canadians.]

Very impressive, when you consider that the SAGE system that it replaced. Each dot on the fuzzy map below  identifies one SAGE command center, each served by one or more large conventional radar antennas at remote sites. The SAGE base in Topsham was first served by the “Texas Towers” off the Maine coast on the Grand Banks and, later, by a more powerful set of antennas on Witch Spring Hill in West Bath.


So, these and many, many other former military sites became surplus, and are going back onto local tax rolls and then most often are converted into some productive commercial or community use. The Brunswick Naval Station is a perfect example of a recycling that should, ultimately, generate more income and benefit for the surrounding area than it ever did as a Cold War base for anti-submarine aircraft … though you wouldn’t suspect it from all the breast-beating and gnashing of teeth that took place when the Navy announced the closure.

Swords to plowshares, spears to pruning hooks … in every sense of the word(s).

But in this transition, something is at risk of being lost: the legacy and the lessons of the Cold War.

As these artifacts, these monuments of Cold War investment, mega-construction and technology, fade away or are absorbed into the peacetime landscape, we begin to lose a context against which to balance the new threats to our security. When both the tactical and strategic elements of our national defense are in our own back yards we have a clearer understanding of what our “defense dollars” are buying and what value we are receiving.

Likewise, when the men and women who staffed these “bases” attended our churches and stood in line with us at the checkout counter, we came to a better understanding of the finer human details of deployment and preparedness. When we make friends of those in uniform because they have been neighbors, we are challenged to pay attention to the evolution of our foreign policy, of the human expense even in peacetime, of the consequences of reduced defense budgets and growing public indifference.

The Moscow OTH radars were turned off within weeks of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The blue uniforms of the Air Force radar specialists faded away from Bangor’s streets. CMP took a hitch in its “profit belt” and  turned its attention to Smart Meters. Maine began to forget.

But Russia still has strategic nuclear missiles pointed our way. Putin has re-activated the Russian strategic bomber command and is back to “testing” our defense perimeters in Alaska. More nations are joining the nuclear club, and developing long-range missiles of their own. Well-funded terrorists could very well be planning to fly nuclear weapons into our airspace on commercial flights.

But fewer and fewer Americans are inclined to ask questions like: “What replaces the OTH radars?” Or, “Why is Canada still using out-of-date technology on the North Warning Line? What threat is expected from that direction? Why don’t we hear more about the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Program being tested in Alaska?

Can a hi-tech radar net in Turkey really protect us at home?”

If we are now substituting satellites for ground-based detection systems, why aren’t we more worried that Russia and China are still developing … and testisng … the means to shoot our satellites down?

There is an inescapable irony in that … had the SAGE System still been operating on 9/11 … none of the terrorist planes would have reached their targets. IN fact, they would probably never even been hijacked, because SAGE “controlled” all the airspace over the nation, and fighters were on ready alert across the country to eliminate airborne threats anywhere at a moment’s notice.

But our eyes and our priorities moved outwards, creating blind spots to be exploited by our “new” enemies.

Pundits and politicians say we are headed for a “Fiscal Cliff” come Jan. 1, 2013 … with almost inescapable financial consequences for military budgets. Jefferson said that Democracy depends upon an informed electorate. But if we are not encouraged to inform ourselves, how can we inform our Congressmen and Women about the priorities to protect when hard choices are made?

Our local Cold War icons are slowly fading and the generation that remembers them lacks an audience. How soon will the new occupants of the former military housing at the foot of Mt. Ararat forget that their streets bear names like Republic Ave., Congress Circle and Liberty Circle for a special reason. The massive concrete bunker of the SAGE System may be gone, but its mission carries on, far away.


Even a plowshare must have a sharp blade.







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