Florida Keys Cry Foul Over Plan to Fire Ballistic Missiles From Their Backyard

According to the Defense Department, no one lives in Dennis Henize's neighborhood. Not even Mr. Henize.

Normally that might not be a problem, but considering that the Defense Department wants to launch 13-ton ballistic missiles 6,500 feet from his front door, Henize is understandably worried. If they couldn't find his house on a map, he wonders, can he trust them with high-tech weaponry?

"It's insulting," says the 22-year resident of the Florida Keys, "They've got it in their heads that the Keys is the place and they don't [care] about anything else."

Henize is just one dissenting voice in a quietly growing tempest over a Pentagon plan to test midrange theater missiles over the Keys' pristine sea-grass meadows, starting in 1999.

The missiles are part of a defense system the military wants to develop to help blunt potential attacks on American military deployments overseas from nations such as Iraq and North Korea - nations capable of acquiring midrange weapons.

The testing will be handled by the successor to the "star wars" program - the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). For its tests, BMDO needs to launch the 13-ton, 44-foot HERA target rockets from one site, then knock them out of the sky with interceptor missiles launched from another site about 250 miles away.

The curve of the Florida coast fits the plan perfectly: The interceptor missiles would be fired from somewhere in the Florida panhandle, and the explosion would occur safely over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. If the interceptor missiles missed, all the missiles would splash harmlessly into the Gulf, BMDO says.

But everything is still up in the air. The final site has not been chosen and will not be until mid-1998. "But Florida has the best geography to conduct midrange [missile] tests," says Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for BMDO.

The organization says it currently has no site to test midrange missiles. It can test short- and long-range missiles in the South Pacific and short-range missiles in New Mexico. Florida could fill this void.

Not surprisingly, virtually no one here supports the program, which would launch 12 HERAs each year. But residents can do nothing to stop it. Should the plan be implemented, a 600-square-mile "launch hazard zone" would have to be vacated for up to four hours before each launch. No boats could cruise into it, no planes could fly through it.

Although no homes are inside the zone, some prime fishing and diving areas are - which is a cause for concern in a community that draws its livelihood from tourism and fishing.

But Mr. Lehner insists the testing is a matter of national security. The missiles, he says, are part of a system to prepare for "rogue" nations that may try to use midrange missiles against the US in the future. Keys residents remain unconvinced that such a threat is more dangerous than the missiles themselves.

Blasting higher than 90,000 feet within a minute of takeoff, the HERA travels at more than 1,500 feet a second and could hit the closest house within a matter of seconds in a worst-case scenario, says Jerry Polverino, a former aeronautical engineer and a neighbor of Henize.

In such a case, counters Hank Marien, a missile specialist with BMDO, small explosives on the missile would be detonated, which would stop the rocket's flight

That may lead to a second danger. Chunks of the fuel, which are solid, as well as debris weighing up to 5,000 pounds can fall wherever the missile happens to misfire, says Walt Monteith, an Air Force missile safety specialist. Mr. Marien, however, claims that the missile is safe. "The HERA is one of the safest missiles we've got," he says. "In fact, it has exceeded our expectations for reliability."

But he cautions that even the HERA's 99.6 reliability percentage is a concern. "With any reliability less than 1, we need to go back and make sure that everything we're doing is on target," he adds.

To missile researcher David Wright of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the whole situation sounds vaguely familiar. Mr. Wright studied BMDO rockets called STARS that were launched from Kauai in the early 1990s.

He found that the STARS had a reliability percentage in the low 80s to low 90s, rather than the estimated 97 percent success rate BMDO attributed to them. "These missiles are very complex systems," he says. "And to say that something that intricate will almost never fail is difficult to believe."

The missiles' impact on the community and environment is another thorny question.

Marien hesitates to speculate until a 500-page report on the subject comes out in September. No one yet knows the effect the 8,000 pounds of aluminum dioxide and hydrogen chloride emissions will have in the wetlands.

Janet Tucker, a spokeswoman for Eglin Air Force Base says the missiles do not bother wildlife at the base in the panhandle. But local environmentalists stress that the Keys are a very different place.

Which the BMDO is finding out.

Keys residents harbor a historic mistrust of the federal government, fed in no small part by its recent establishment the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary around the islands. A majority of people here opposed the sanctuary, saying it was too restrictive.

An Eglin missile specialist did little to ease local fears when he said on television that the necessary launch radius was 9,000 feet. Henize and his neighbors mentioned they were 2,500 feet inside this circle, and a BMDO spokesman responded that the radius had been 6,500 feet all along and the 9,000 feet figure was a mistake and he was thinking of something else.

The mix-ups and backtracking are leaving many in the Keys worried.

"Perhaps the most enraging thing about this is the half-truths ... the shoddy work and lack of concern they have about such a dangerous system," says Mr. Polverino.

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