Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Missile Launcher Installed At Naval Warfare Center

A large, drab green missile launcher -- aimed vigilantly skyward -- has become one of suburban West Bethesda's more distinctive landmarks. "Did you see that?" neighborhood resident Miriam Burton asked her husband, Alton, when she first spotted the weapon on a recent drive along the Clara Barton Parkway. "What the heck is going on there?"The launcher has since December claimed a commanding position on the lawn at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock facility, a science and engineering center overlooking the Potomac River. The missile launcher has people talking, but the U.S. Navy is keeping mum about its specific capabilities. "People have to understand there are a lot of moving parts to our national defense, and not everyone is going to know about all of them," says Lt. Cmdr. Ed Zeigler, public affairs officer for the Naval District of Washington. He did say that the launcher is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Operation Noble Eagle, a program designed to tighten national security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He says the six non-nuclear missiles in the launcher could "counter an inbound threat." Opinions about the neighborhood's newest security system have varied. Larry Hubbard and some other people in the upscale community, stretching between Bethesda and Potomac, have barely given the launcher a second thought. But others, such as Lenore Schneiderman, wonder about it. "I don't like the idea of that thing over there," she says, quickly adding: "At least it's not facing my house." To Pat Elder, a peace activist, the launcher in his neighborhood has become a monument to what he sees as America's troubling posture toward the world. "It's really a sad statement on the Bush administration's foreign policy," he says. His neighbor and fellow activist, Jane Coe, a member of the Bethesda Friends Meeting, agrees. She grew up thinking of Bethesda, with its naval hospital and National Institutes of Health, as a center of healing, not of warfare. She says the thought of the missile launcher pains her, and she wonders whether a vigil might be in order. "We might need to plan something," she says. Mike Rychlik, who owns a tile installation business, takes a more resigned view. "I don't feel offended. I personally feel like it's more of a propaganda thing. It's more like, 'We're going to do something, by God.' " But Rychlik believes the kind of inbound threat the launcher so patiently awaits "is an elusive target." "It's like murder. You can't prevent it," he says. There may never be agreement in the neighborhood, or even in the home of Miriam and Alton Burton. "My husband said he felt safer -- that if a missile was coming, it could intercept it," Miriam Burton says. But the launcher's challenging posture seems to her like an invitation for a strike on Bethesda. "I wish they'd cover it," she says. "I wish it were a little better landscaped."