Huntsville's Missile Payload
Ken Silverstein/Mother Jones, July-August 2001
Pentagon money and Nazi rocket scientists turned a sleepy Alabama town into a defense contractor's paradise. Now President Bush is preparing to sink billions more into missile defense -- and give Huntsville its biggest boost ever.
Like any great promoter, Joe Fitzgerald emanates unbridled enthusiasm. A congenial man with a neatly trimmed white beard, he's a classic civic booster who loves to extol his hometown's virtues. "Huntsville is an extremely patriotic community," he gushes. "We have a Veterans Day parade here -- tens of thousands of people come out to see it." But Huntsville's patriotic fervor is more than the God-and-country passion of the typical Southern town: Over the past 50 years, the city has nurtured a remarkable economic boom on federal dollars for weapons and space projects -- notably the Pentagon's long-standing quest to build a Star Wars-type missile-defense system. President Bush announced in May that he wants to go ahead with such a system and have at least part of it in place by 2004. If his plan is approved by Congress next year, missile-defense spending could reach $10 billion annually, more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the government spent to produce the atomic bomb.
And if Fitzgerald has his way, much of that money will continue to flow to Huntsville, Alabama. "First, we recognize that if America is to be defended, we need a missile-defense system," he says, summarizing the position of a business group he represents. "Second, we want that system to be developed here in Huntsville."
A booming community of 160,000 that proudly proclaims itself "Rocket City," Huntsville is to missile defense what Detroit is to cars and Pittsburgh once was to steel -- a place that derives much of its revenue, and its civic mythology, from a single industry. Local landmarks bear the name of rocket-science pioneer Wernher von Braun; a massive replica of the Saturn V rocket marks the entrance to the city; and just outside town, charming antebellum homes give way to an industrial park that houses dozens of military contractors and federal agencies.
Roughly half of Huntsville's economic activity is generated by federal contracting dollars -- and a hefty share of that money is earmarked for missile defense. Though the Pentagon has yet to produce a technology capable of knocking incoming warheads out of the sky, it has spent an estimated $95 billion on the effort in the past two decades. Huntsville companies currently hold 150 missile-defense contracts worth a combined $1.7 billion, with the beneficiaries ranging from the four biggest contractors -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and TRW, all of which have a substantial local presence -- to hundreds of smaller, homegrown firms that have fattened up on the missile business.
Not surprisingly, the city's business and political leadership has emerged as a vocal lobbying force for more spending on missile defense -- and Fitzgerald is one of its chief pitchmen. He is a member, consultant, or officer of some two dozen local organizations, from the executive committee of the local Republican Party to the Space and Missile Defense Working Group, an association of some 150 business, military, and civic officials. When I called him from my hotel in Huntsville, Fitzgerald said he'd be right over to meet me; he arrived, bearing an armload of documents, barely 30 minutes later.
The Working Group's mission, Fitzgerald explained over a glass of beer, is public education. To that end, the organization has sent every member of Congress a "White Paper" explaining how the United States is vulnerable to missile attack by Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other "rogue" states. The Group has also sent a four-minute docudrama called "America at Risk" to governors and top school officials in all 50 states. In the video, a man confesses that he's alarmed about all the countries that are "threatening to fire missiles at us, to keep us out of their business." His wife pooh-poohs his concern ("Sweetheart, if they did fire something at us, we could handle it. We'd just shoot them down") until their dinner table discussion is interrupted by air sirens and a TV announcement that an enemy missile is headed their way.
The Working Group coordinates its efforts with Alabama's congressional delegation, whose members include vocal missile-defense advocates like Republican Senator Richard Shelby. In return for the politicians' support, local companies contribute generously to the campaigns of missile-defense boosters; they also frequently hire alumni of the Pentagon agencies that oversee the program. It's the military-industrial complex writ small, or, in Fitzgerald's apt one-word description, a "circle."
"Our political leaders are supportive [of missile defense] because the program is necessary and right for America, and because they want to keep some of those dollars and jobs here," he says. "The jobs provide economic growth, which makes the contractors happy, and they support the political leadership with votes and contributions."
The command center of the Pentagon's Huntsville missile-defense effort is Redstone Arsenal, a sprawling stretch of grassland interspersed with Army barracks and bland government buildings about 10 minutes west of the small downtown area. Many of the Pentagon agencies that run the missile-defense program are stationed here; the Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), which distributes program monies locally, occupies a two-story brick building nearby, at Cummings Research Park.
"If you want to see how important [missile defense] is to this town, just look out at our parking lot," says SMDC spokesman Dan Coberly. "Hundreds of people work in this building, and when you add up the salaries and the air traffic in and out of town and the car sales and home purchases, it's a staggering amount." Coberly's boss, Bill Congo, strikes a similar theme. "There are a lot of companies in town that owe their prosperity, and possibly their existence, to missile-defense and space programs," he notes proudly.
Many of those companies are also headquartered at Cummings, a 3,800-acre industrial area that serves as the corporate heart of Huntsville's missile-defense network. More than 200 companies, including 17 Fortune 500 firms, have offices here, and seven new buildings are going up to house a steady stream of new arrivals. The offices, bloodless structures of steel and glass, are spread across roads with names such as Technology Drive, Explorer Boulevard, and Discovery Drive.
It's a far cry from the scene a visitor would have encountered in the 1940s, when Huntsville's population stood at just over 13,000 and its claim to fame was its status as the "Watercress Capital of the World." Farmers also grew cotton and corn, while "industry" consisted of a shoe factory and a few textile mills. The only major military facility in town was a munitions plant set to close after World War II.
The city's transformation began with the arrival of Wernher von Braun, Hitler's chief missile designer, whose V-2 rocket terrorized London and other British cities. An SS major who headed rocket research at the Peenemunde complex, where slave laborers were starved, beaten, and worked to death, von Braun could have ended up in the docket at Nuremberg like other leading Nazis. But at war's end, the Pentagon was anxious to plumb German scientific know-how in order to improve America's weaponry. Under the top-secret Operation Paperclip, the Army smuggled von Braun and his team of 118 Peenemunde scientists out of Germany and brought them to the United States. After first going to a military base near El Paso, they were taken to Huntsville in 1950 and put to work at Redstone Arsenal.
Though the Germans arrived when World War II and its horrors were still fresh in memory, their presence never caused much controversy in Huntsville. "They were accustomed to a more cultured environment and helped bring an orchestra here and started other activities," recalls Chuck Lundquist, a former Army engineer who worked closely with von Braun. "The people of Huntsville appreciated that, and of course the money coming in was also very attractive to the population."
In Alabama, von Braun and his team built the Army's first ballistic missile, a modified V-2 named the Redstone. They designed the Explorer I, America's first satellite and the answer to Sputnik, and built the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. Von Braun lobbied the state legislature on the need to attract "brainpower" and industry, and in 1962 the city established Cummings Research Park, now the second-largest high-tech complex in the country after North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. Two years later, the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) launched an undergraduate program that began pumping out engineers for the military-scientific complex.
All this served to draw business and people to Huntsville. The city's population tripled within five years of von Braun's arrival, increased twofold during the following decade, and has been climbing steadily, if less spectacularly, since. Von Braun eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he remained until his death in 1977, but his legacy still looms large in Huntsville: The huge downtown convention center is named after him, as is a major research institute at the university. He's also the star of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to the space program. One of the first exhibits recounts von Braun's life story, though the designers have tactfully elided all but a pro forma mention of his years as a Nazi scientist.
A large section of the center, whose major donors include the city's top military contractors, is devoted to the subject of missile defense. The displays exude a peppy, can-do spirit; there's even a video game -- "Step up, soldier! See if you have what it takes to defend your homeland" -- where players are challenged to shoot down enemy cruise missiles heading for America's major urban centers. Every time you miss, the number of "Cities Impacted" creeps ominously higher on the video screen.
Given Huntsville's deep military roots, it's no surprise that national defense policy ranks high on civic leaders' agendas. "In many ways we're more connected to Washington, D.C., than we are to the state capital in Montgomery," notes Alex Hardy, who manages Cummings Research Park activities for the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce. Along with Mike Ward, a colleague at the Chamber -- where staff business cards are embossed with the motto "The Sky Is Not the Limit" -- Hardy met me in a spacious conference room at his office for a slide presentation on the local economy.
As bar charts and data pies flashed on an overhead screen, Ward and Hardy rattled off evidence of Huntsville's remarkable achievements: third in the nation in hightech job creation; an average salary level of $34,000, far ahead of the state and even national averages; ranked last January by Expansion Management magazine as the nation's No. 3 "cybermecca." During the past decade, they emphasized, Huntsville's military-generated technology boom has spun off in new directions. Telecommunications, electronics, and biotech firms have popped up across the city, and foreign giants like Nokia and Toyota have opened up shop here as well.
For its status as the "Silicon Valley of the Southeast," Huntsville may owe Ronald Reagan as much as Wernher von Braun. Though the Pentagon has pursued missile-defense projects since the Eisenhower era, it was Reagan who launched the grandest of them all: His 1983 Star Wars initiative promised to build a virtual Astrodome over the continental United States. None of the systems and concepts associated with Star Wars -- which ran the gamut from shooting down Soviet missiles with chemical lasers to blasting them from the sky with space-based battle stations -- was ever shown to work. But the program's emphasis on supercomputers and advanced communications technology gave Huntsville a head start on the digital age.
Congress drastically curtailed Star Wars spending after the fall of the Soviet Union. But missile defense made a comeback after Republicans took control of the House in 1994, and advocates were soon touting a more modest system aimed at neutralizing small-scale attacks from "rogue" states. Critics have warned that even this scaled-back approach would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and prompt other countries to ratchet up their own missile programs; last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that, according to a CIA-led intelligence assessment, deploying a missile shield could set off a series of military and political ripple effects, including a nuclear arms race in China, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East.
President Clinton committed more than $6 billion to missile-defense research late in his tenure, but after a highly publicized test failure last July, he decided to leave the decision on whether to deploy a system up to his successor. That, of course, turned out to be George W. Bush, who has put the program on the fast track and vowed to proceed with deployment even if it jeopardizes the ABM treaty.
Bush has not yet announced which missile-defense technologies he would like to see built; administration officials have discussed the Army's ground-based approach as well as sea- and space-based concepts championed by the Navy and the Air Force. But Huntsville residents overwhelmingly support the locally based Army program. "We believe the technical merits are on our side," Joe Fitzgerald explains. "But it's also true that if it's an Air Force or Navy system, the dollars will not flow here."
If Bush's plan follows the pattern of past missile-defense efforts, a substantial share of the money will flow to companies like Colsa Corp., perhaps the most spectacular of the high-tech success stories spawned by the military money pumped into Huntsville. When Frank Collazo, a former Army air-defense warrant officer, started the company in 1980, he and his wife, the only employees, worked out of their modest Huntsville home. Two decades later, the company, now housed in a three-story building on Odyssey Drive in Cummings Research Park, had 750 employees and did $80 million in business; Collazo himself is a multimillionaire, and his primary residence is an estate atop Grant Mountain in neighboring Marshall County.
From the beginning, Star Wars-related work was the key to Colsa's spectacular growth. On a list compiled by the New York-based World Policy Institute, the company ranks as the nation's 10th-largest missile-defense contractor, having garnered nearly $139 million from the Pentagon between 1998 and 1999. Its plum contract is a $72-million deal with the Space and Missile Defense Command to run the Advanced Research Center, a war-games facility where the Pentagon digitally simulates battles and tests missile-defense components. At the heart of the center is a 15,000-square-foot room lined with row after row of servers linked by an ocean of pink, blue, green, and red cables. "If you took what's in this room and equated it to desktop PCs, you could put a computer in every house in Birmingham," notes the facility's director, John Welt.
Like his boss, Welt joined Colsa after a career as an Army air-defense officer. Three of the firm's five vice presidents are also former Army officials (the other two hail from NASAb and the University of Alabama, respectively). The company's president, George Williams, came to Colsa five years ago after retiring from a top job in the Army's Tactile Missile Program. The former director of the Missile and Space Intelligence Center, Colonel John Wigington, came to work for Colsa after his retirement last year; soon thereafter, the company received a $25-million contract from Wigington's old agency, its first ever.
Colsa's top officials aren't the only former military men to have passed through the Huntsville version of Washington's revolving door. A few blocks away sits Davidson Enterprises, founded by Julian Davidson, who served as director of the Pentagon's now-defunct Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency from 1968 to 1971; his firm holds a variety of missile-defense contracts, including three contracts worth a total of $1 million from the Space and Missile Defense Command.
That agency's former chief of staff, Bob Pollard, resigned last year to head the Huntsville operation of Virginia-based SY Technology, which does contract work on an Army system designed to protect troops or ships in battle from short-range missile attacks. SMDC's former commanding general, retired Lt. General Jay Garner, is the firm's president.
As they have prospered, local defense firms have also become significant political contributors. Major donors associated with local defense firms gave almost $850,000 to political campaigns and parties in the last election cycle. The town's biggest single donor was Colsa's parent company, Collazo Enterprises; the company and its employees gave $276,000 in 1999 and 2000, including a $100,000 corporate soft-money donation to the state elections fund of the Republican National Committee. Individual contributions from Collazo and members of his family accounted for $63,000 of that total.
Among the beneficiaries of Huntsville contractors' largesse is Senator Shelby, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence and a figure of such stature in the missile-defense complex that the local headquarters of the Missile and Space Intelligence Center was named after him. (That's an honor usually reserved for deceased politicians like the late Senator John J. Sparkman, who helped convince the Army to bring von Braun to town half a century ago and whose name graces the complex that houses the Aviation and Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal.) Huntsville companies and individuals contributed almost $350,000 to Shelby and his pac Defend America between 1997 and 2000; Collazo and other Colsa employees gave $53,000 of the total.
Some of that money may have been given grudgingly. A former Colsa program manager who asked not to be identified says a company executive would occasionally make the rounds and pressure managers and other execs to pony up for Shelby and Defend America. "He said there were limits to what Frank could give and that we should also make contributions," he recalls. "I doubt I would have been fired if I'd said no, but that would have been the end of my Christmas bonus."
According to the former manager, Colsa gets a good return on its money. Collazo and other company officials are in frequent contact with Shelby's office, he says, and the senator and his aides regularly visit the company's headquarters. After successfully pushing the Senate to approve billions of dollars for local firms last year -- including $6.5 million more than President Clinton had requested for the Colsa-run Advanced Research Center -- Shelby declared that the region "has done wonders for the national defense. Investments like this will help to maintain that success."
Of the 118 original Paperclip scientists, some three dozen are still alive, and about half of those men live in Huntsville. On my way out of town, I stopped to see von Braun's former chief scientist, Ernst Stuhlinger. Still spry at 87, even with a good amount of steel plating in his legs, Stuhlinger lives in a spacious home in the hills overlooking the city. He took me out to his backyard, from which Huntsville unfolds with such clarity that Stuhlinger immediately picked out the Space & Rocket Center and landmarks at Redstone Arsenal.
"The main reason the Army brought us over was to keep us from falling into the hands of the Russians," Stuhlinger, who still speaks with a heavy accent, says of his unorthodox immigration to America. "They were wise men who knew that the friendship between the United States and Russia would not last."
Stuhlinger spoke proudly of helping send men to the moon and predicted that the United States will one day succeed in landing astronauts on Mars. But when I asked him for his opinion of missile-defense programs, the garrulous old scientist suddenly clammed up.
After a few minutes of negotiating what I could put on the record, Stuhlinger said that he'd never been a believer in Reagan's Star Wars approach and that he was highly skeptical about today's model. "Missile defense is much more complicated than space travel," he said. "It's simply too easy to deceive the system with cheap decoys that can be launched in the hundreds."
Now the source of Stuhlinger's nervousness was all too apparent. Much of the panorama before him -- the sprawling city, the shiny office buildings -- owed its existence to the missile programs his team had helped launch. Yet in his view, the Pentagon's latest strategy -- and Huntsville's best chance to retain its "Rocket City" title -- was largely a pipe dream. In a company town, that could amount to sacrilege.
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