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Test operations can now be conducted from abroad

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Oct. 19, 2010) – A $100 million communications cable is transforming a high-tech missile testing facility in the western Pacific from one of the most isolated American military installations to one that can be operated remotely from the mainland United States.

The Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands has been the center of United States missile defense research and development for nearly 50 years. But in recent years, other test ranges and a shift to open ocean missile testing has reduced U.S. use of Kwajalein. Now, a newly installed submarine fiber optic cable that will allow missile experiments to be run from the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama is expected to draw in new customers because of lower costs, the base commander, Col. Joseph N. Gaines, said Friday.

Over the next two years, as the Army shifts its missile testing and space monitoring missions from slow satellite transmissions to the high-speed cable, the number of American workers at the Kwajalein missile range will drop to the lowest level since the Army began operating the test range in 1964. While that is bad news for the Marshall Islands, which depends heavily on tax revenue from American workers and base support jobs for Marshall Islanders, the same technology upgrades that will send Americans back to the Army’s Huntsville headquarters may increase the level of missile test research and development at Kwajalein because it will reduce the costs to military and civilian customers.

Kwajalein is a boomerang-shaped string of 93 small coral islands that comprise the world’s large atoll, located about 4,200 miles (6,760 kilometers) from California. A dozen of the islands are dotted with sophisticated radar, infrared cameras and other missile tracking equipment, and one is used for launching interceptor missiles at incoming simulated nuclear warheads.

The U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll, or USAKA, is this month starting the process of shifting its operations from satellite to the recently installed submarine fiber optic cable linking the atoll with Guam and the world, said Gaines in an interview Friday.

The Army’s information technology division at the end of September completed numerous tests on the cable since it was installed in early 2010.

"This was just completed at the end of September," he said. "Cable reliability is nearly 100 percent. I expect use of the cable will increase our speed and volume of data (transfer) by 20-to-30 times."

During 2011, the Army will move its testing and space operations activity from satellite to cable, reducing the number of on-island personnel needed to run the base. But with a $100 million investment in the new undersea cable that links Kwajalein with a Guam communications hub, the Army isn’t leaving Kwajalein.

Once fully operational, the cable will allow Kwajalein’s missile testing and space tracking missions to be run from a control center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"I visited the Huntsville facility," Gaines said. "It is up and running." He explained that the control facility in Huntsville has been built as a carbon copy of the mission control facilities at Roi-Namur and Kwajalein islands. "If you didn’t go outside (of the facility at Huntsville), you’d think you were in the operations center at Kwajalein," he said.

In about two years, Gaines expects that about 100 workers now on the base will be transferred to Huntsville. This means that Kwajalein’s American workforce will drop below the 800 level for the first time in more than 40 years. The number of Marshall Islanders working for the Army has dropped from a high of about 1,400 in the late 1990s to 775 as of last month, Army officials said.

Assistant Secretary of Finance Bruce Bilimon recently expressed worry over job cutbacks that resulted in layoffs of 79 American and Marshall Islands workers in September because of the negative impact on government finances. The Marshall Islands gets a five percent tax from the salaries of American workers at Kwajalein, as well as income, retirement and health taxes on Marshall Islands workers’ salaries at Kwajalein.

But the technological advances will reduce the workforce in the coming two years. "The benefit (of the new cable) to our customers is they won’t have to travel 7,000 miles to see the tests and observe the data," Gaines said.

"It’s a huge leap in terms of modernization."

Kwajalein’s core work of launching interceptor missiles from the atoll will continue, and these will be tracked and managed from Kwajalein, he said.

He believes that the technology upgrade will make the test range more attractive for customers to use the range for testing and launches.

These changes may "bring in new customers that could result in more money for the range," Gaines said. "We don’t want to lay off workers. We know the impact this has on the local community. They (people being laid off) are part of our family at USAKA. They are more than just employees."

But in the short-term, the outlook at this isolated missile range is continuing job cutbacks as the testing continues its modernization makeover.

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