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Pentagon: New Missile Site Unneeded
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Tom Z. Collina

In a setback to congressional proponents of a new missile interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast, senior military officials wrote in June that there is no military requirement for such a site and that the funds would be better spent on improving sensor capabilities for the existing system of interceptor sites in Alaska and California.

“There is no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site,” wrote Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), and Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, commander of the Joint Functional Command for Integrated Missile Defense, in a June 10 letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). They told Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that a decision to build such a site should wait until an environmental review of possible locations, required by the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, is complete. In May, Syring testified that this review, which would start in early 2014, could take up to two years.

Compared to another missile interceptor site, investments in “discrimination and sensor capabilities” would be a “more cost-effective” way to better protect the United States from long-range ballistic missiles, Syring and Formica wrote. Independent experts have criticized the U.S. system for not having the sensors, such as X-band radars, that would be necessary to distinguish actual threat warheads from missile debris and other decoys. Michael Gilmore, director of operational testing and evaluation at the Pentagon, testified May 9 that “[i]f we can’t discriminate what the real threatening objects are, it doesn’t matter how many ground-based interceptors we have. We won’t be able to hit what needs to be hit.”

The United States already has two missile interceptor sites on the West Coast, at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with a total of 30 ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles to blunt potential limited attacks from North Korea or Iran. North Korea has long-range missiles that may be capable of reaching the United States; Iran could have such capabilities by 2015 with foreign assistance, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.

In response to recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the Pentagon announced in March that it would field an additional 14 GBI missiles in Alaska by 2017 at a cost of $1 billion, using funds that would have been allocated for the now-canceled Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB missile that had been planned for deployment in Europe. (See ACT, April 2013.) The GBI missiles would also be effective against future missile threats from Iran, according to the Defense Department.

Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, testified in May that the East Coast is already “well protected” by the 30 GBI missiles now deployed and that the plan for another 14 interceptors “provides additional protection” against “anything from North Korea as well as anything from Iran, should that threat develop.”

The combat effectiveness of the current GBI system has not been proven. The system has not successfully intercepted a test target since 2008, with two failures in 2010. (See ACT, October 2012.)

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the defense authorization bill June 13. Like last year, the Democratic-led Senate did not authorize an East Coast site. Instead, reflecting the June 10 letter from the Pentagon, the committee’s bill authorizes $30 million to deploy an additional X-band radar to support target discrimination. The administration had not requested those funds. Overall, the committee authorized $9.3 billion for missile defense, $150 million more than what the administration had requested.

Levin told reporters June 13 that his committee had authorized funds to build “advanced sensors” that would be “more effective than just missiles.” Levin said the sensors would be cheaper than a new missile interceptor site and that “they can be fielded faster.”

Despite the Pentagon’s position, on June 14 the full Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted, as it did last year, to fund an East Coast missile defense site in its fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill, providing $140 million to begin site construction. The House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee put $70 million in its 2014 spending bill for the same purpose.

The House authorization bill says a new site is needed “to deal more effectively with the long-range ballistic missile threat from the Middle East,” particularly Iran. Missile defense proponents in the House say that the need has increased since the Obama administration canceled the SM-3 IIB program, which would have been fielded in Poland to intercept potential long-range missiles from Iran aimed at the United States.

On June 11, after a House Armed Services Committee vote, the White House threatened to veto the House defense bill on the grounds that the call for an East Coast site “presumes a validated military requirement…when none exists.”

An East Coast site would cost at least $3.4 billion to build and operate over five years, according to a June 11 Congressional Budget Office estimate. A 2012 report by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said that the total 20-year cost for a new system at two sites would be up to $25 billion and that the United States has already spent about $40 billion on the system on the West Coast. The report recommended replacing the existing system with an entirely new technology, which could take a decade or more to develop.

Once the full Senate approves its defense authorization bill, the House and Senate bills will have to be brought into agreement by a conference committee before being sent to President Barack Obama.