— Missile defense advocates across the
United States
are anxious about how the activity will fare under the administration of newly inaugurated U.S. President BarackObama, who has expressed doubts about some missile defense spending, but for certain communities the stakes are especially high. There is perhaps no better example than
, a key center of missile defense development activity.

is home to the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, two co-located facilities whose long history in rocket development has given
the nickname
Rocket City
. Redstone hosts Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Army Aviation and Missile Command, and major elements of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Of
‘s roughly 205,000-strong work force, more than 14,000 are employed at Redstone, with thousands more at contractors that dot the area.

“We have more engineers per mile than anywhere in the nation,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle.

Even more are on the way. The most recent round of
military base consolidations and closures transferred a significant number of government missile defense jobs to
and a number of contractors are expanding their operations in the area.

and its economy have benefited greatly from the surge in missile defense funding under former President George W. Bush, who left after eight years in office Jan. 20. Bush made missile defense a key priority early in his administration; spending on the various programs falling under that umbrella has reached $11 billion annually under his watch.

“It’s critical,”
said of missile defense and its importance to the region. “It’s vital to the life-blood of this area.”

According to MDA spokesman Richard Lehner, four of the agency’s biggest development programs are concentrated in the
area: the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, Kinetic Energy Interceptor and Multiple Kill Vehicle. The GMD system, designed to protect
territory with fields of interceptors now being deployed in
, is the biggest of them all, with a 2009 budget of $2.1 billion.

“The economy up there is all built around defense,” said David Gespass, president of the Birmingham Peace Project, an Alabama-based group that advocates nonviolence and human rights.

GMD prime contractor Boeing Missile Defense of
, issued a report recently saying the program contributed $700 million in 2007 to the
area, paying the salaries of more than 1,100 workers.

“Boeing brings the type of high-wage, high-skill jobs that generate additional jobs in the communities where we live,” Boeing said in a written statement to Space News. “Every 10 Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Program jobs in
, for example, generate an additional 38 jobs. In short, this program is a high-producing jobs program, with a proud workforce that is very active in giving back to the community.”

According to budget documents submitted last February with the MDA’s 2009 spending request to Congress, the agency plans to spend well over $50 billion from 2009 through 2013. But all bets could be off now that Obama, whose Democratic Party has been far more skeptical of missile defense than the Republican Party, is in office.

said during his campaign that he would “cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” An Obama position paper on defense policy said an Obama administration would support missile defense only to the extent that it does not divert funding from other key national security priorities “until we are positive the technology will protect the American public.”

Democrats in recent years generally have been more supportive of missile defense systems that are deployment-ready or relatively mature, GMD being an example, as opposed to more futuristic technologies such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor or Airborne Laser. Obama has not been specific about which programs will get support under his administration and which would be cut, but many experts believe it will be difficult to make drastic reductions in the near term.

So far,
said, Obama’s advisers have told local MDA officials not to expect drastic cuts – at least not yet.

“The thinking used to be that we would absorb a missile, count the dead, and return fire,”
said. “I think everybody realizes safety is No. 1, [and] we should be allowed to finish the job.”

John Southerland, communications director for the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, said many of the local missile defense contracts span five- or 10-year periods and involve research rather than manufacturing.

“I will be very surprised if research and development slows down at all,” Southerland said. He added that the
metropolitan area is not entirely dependent on missile defense, noting that federal dollars also support dozens of local NASA and Army aviation programs.

Dan Montgomery, lead executive in Huntsville for Northrop Grumman Corp., which in 2005 announced plans to expand its presence in the area with the construction of a five-building complex, was similarly optimistic. “We believe what we’re doing is important to national security [and] what we have in our portfolio they’ll look very favorably on and realize we’re still very viable,” he said. Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor on the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a system that some experts believe will be vulnerable to the budget axe under the Obama administration.

One thing the MDA, its contractors and Huntsville-area advocates can count on is support from
‘s powerful congressional delegation, including Republican Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions.

“I intend to maintain my efforts to secure funding to strengthen our missile defense programs,” Shelby, who sits on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said via e-mail. “We need to continue to aggressively enhance our missile defense capabilities and work to establish a Third Site in

The Third Site refers to Bush administration plans to deploy missile defense installations in the
Czech Republic
, plans that still require ratification by the parliaments of the respective host nations.