- - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Air Force is about to destroy a jewel of scientific research in the name of saving money, and it will be a classic penny-wise and pound-foolish mistake. The jewel is paid for, there’s a willing and eager institutional savior, and it will cost more to destroy it than to save it. The bulldozers are idling at the gate.

In 1990, I was chairman of a scientific committee to examine the science and applications made possible by a new, congressionally initiated program, known as HAARP, the acronym for the jawbreaking High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. The key component of the program is the ionospheric heater, a high-power radio-frequency transmitter located in a remote region of Alaska that produces the aurora borealis. Scientists use such transmitters to study the ionosphere, a region above the atmosphere that affects much of familiar 21st-century technology, including radio broadcasting, ship-to-shore communications, military communications and surveillance systems, and all satellite-to-ground signals, including the GPS. The efficiency and lifetime of space platforms — including the International Space Station — are affected by the ionosphere.

Congress authorized the program after a range of the U.S. scientific leadership recommended the development of the “world-leading” transmitter, based in the latest technology. The program would support projects that exploit auroral ionospheric phenomena for improved ground and submarine communications and high-energy technology, and to ensure a robust effort in emerging technology.

The program was carefully and incrementally developed. First was the construction of a limited-power transmitter, completed in 1997, to test the technology and to make sure the HAARP research and applications were unique. Following four years of experiments, a panel, directed by Anthony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was convened in 2001 to determine the success and promise of the research, conducted with a prototype, and to recommend how and where the project should go. Finding the research and potential extremely promising, the committee recommended the immediate completion of the transmitter along with diagnostic instruments. The Air Force, Navy and DARPA shared equally the $110 million construction costs. When the HAARP program was completed in 2007, the full cost, including the prototype, was close to $250 million.

The research results since have fully justified the judgment of the Tether panel. Revolutionary scientific results have led to novel applications. The HAARP program became the scientific jewel, far exceeding the capabilities of a similar European facility, not only in power and flexibility, but in many discoveries on the frontier of science. A workshop convened last year by the National Research Council of the National Academy confirmed the value and promise of HAARP research and its role in preserving American leadership in the field.

Alas, success does not go unpunished. Science agencies and laboratories, including the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Los Alamos National Laboratory financed the research, and more than 15 universities shared the thrill of scientific discovery and success. Operations and management of the program were the responsibility of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Air Force now wants to shut it down. The Air Force representative (not a scientist, by the way), says that “current plans called for elimination of the facility by FY 2015.” The Air Force, citing sequestration, diverted operational funds to other purposes. Regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency require “remediation” of the site, which will cost an estimated $30 million. This is equal to 10 years of the required operations and management costs. The Air Force manager declined earlier this year to provide its estimates of the cost of remediation, and “anyway, the cost would come from a different budget element.” The Air Force could reduce the cost by bulldozing the facility, which recalls for me visions of the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.

While the Air Force neither wants nor appreciates the unique value of HAARP, users from several federal agencies, laboratories and universities, and friendly nations such as Canada, Britain, Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden and Norway, are eager to use its unique resources, which would further spread American influence and leadership.

Preserving HAARP would require alternative ways to share and manage operating costs. The University of Alaska has offered alternative business models and wants to take ownership or lease the facility. What is required is a transitional funding of $2.5 million to $3 million in operational funding over three to five years while a new scheme resembling the pay-per-use system of its European counterpart is fully implemented. The cost of such transition is significantly lower than the remediation of the site and preserves American leadership and training.

The administration and Congress still have time to save this priceless jewel. Sacrificing a $250 million investment and threatening the future of U.S. radio-science research to save $10 million is absurd and wasteful. The Air Force Research Laboratory tells us that the bulldozers will be at the gates on June 15. There’s no time to waste if wise heads are to prevail and the jewel is to be saved.

Dennis Papadopoulos is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maryland.

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