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GOP, Pentagon tussle over East Coast shield


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The last time missile defense was an election period issue, Al Queda used passenger jets to bring down the Twin Towers and took out a wing of the Pentagon. Maybe it is time to refocus priorities and strategies.

GOP, Pentagon tussle over East Coast shield
It's shaping up to be one of the most partisan disputes in the Armed Services Committees.


The Pentagon has repeatedly said it doesn’t need — nor can it afford — a third anti-missile battery on American territory to defend against a possible attack from North Korea or Iran.

But that hasn’t stopped congressional Republicans, ideologically predisposed to a more comprehensive missile shield than Democrats, from pushing for one on the East Coast.

For several years now backers have not been able to prevail in getting enough support to find the billions of dollars needed to construct the anti-missile site along the Eastern Seaboard, as Democrats in the Senate have effectively blocked the effort. Yet, there’s a new push for doing so in the House Armed Services Committee that could see support in the GOP-led Senate as well, beginning with new direction to re-locate a high-powered X-band radar from a ship.

“I do intend to go forward with it,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the panel’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee chairman, told POLITICO.
The subcommittee announced Wednesday it has included language in its defense authorization bill for next fiscal year that “directs immediate work on site design and other study and process work to homeport such radar on the East Coast.”

The effort is shaping up to be one of the the most partisan disputes in the Armed Services Committees in both the House and Senate, which frequently tout their traditional bipartisanship.

Republicans point to Iran’s fledgling intercontinental ballistic missile program as a key flaw in the nuclear deal being negotiated by the Obama administration because it would not be addressed under the framework agreement.

Iran successfully placed a satellite in orbit earlier this year. The fear is the capability could be morphed into something more sinister: the ability to launch rockets with nuclear warheads. But Iran has claimed both its space and nuclear programs are being developed for peaceful purposes.

Democrats cite Pentagon testimony that an additional interceptor site is neither needed nor affordable in the current budget environment and point out that even the current pair of interceptor sites remain unproven.

“It’s certainly not something that the Department of Defense or the Missile Defense Agency are pursuing,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senior officials have made it clear, he added, that they have other priorities that would be the “smartest allocation” of funding.

The Pentagon says it has in place what it needs to defend against the current threats and efforts to improve the existing system — known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System — that is already in the ground at Alaska and California must take precedence.
The Missile Defense Agency’s director, Vice Adm. James Syring, testified several times on Capitol Hill in recent months stating there’s no doubt an East Coast site would provide additional capabilities but the more important investment now is to develop better tools to identify incoming missiles and address shortcomings in the so-called Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, a troubled piece of the system that is designed to destroy the incoming missiles in flight.

The warheads already in the ground in Alaska and California have had a bad track record in tests in recent years, so improving those have become the highest priority in homeland defense.

Syring’s deputy, Brig. Gen. Kenneth Todorov, also said earlier this month the current system is outpacing the threat, but improving on the current anti-missile network is the highest priority.

The Pentagon’s missile defense officials have warned that funding an additional missile site would delay such work and hamper efforts to bring the costs of the current system down.

“I would rather invest and develop the technologies that allow us to get on the correct side of the cost curve,” Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of the U.S. Northern Command, which so far has only begun an environmental impact study of potential locations for a third interceptor site, told POLITICO, “because that is the most important piece of the pie.”

Ballistic missile defense is “on a very expensive path,” added Gortney, who is responsible for homeland defense. “We are shooting very cheap rockets down with very expensive rockets.”

The commander of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, Lt. Gen. David Mann, said in February that constructing an East Coast site would require at least $3 billion.

Where such funding could come from remains an open question amid the Pentagon’s budget turbulence and the possibility for cuts under the Budget Control Act.

“If it were financially feasible, it would be a good thing,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. “[But] I’m not sure where we’ll come out.”

Others on the committee are determined to find a way.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said she still had a “keen interest” in a third site.
“We haven’t seen any delay on Iran’s [intercontinental ballistic missile] program,” she said. “We saw the recent space launch vehicle, which could also be a delivery mechanism, unfortunately for a nuclear bomb.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it was still too soon to know how his committee would tackle the issue.
Gortney said the MDA is doing “the prudent thing when it comes to the East Coast site” — which is proceeding with environmental impact studies of sites should the threat require a third site or new funding become available.

The four possible sites are Fort Drum in New York, the SERE Training Area at Naval Air Station in Maine, the Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan and the Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio.

Syring has said the impact studies are due to wrap up next year.

Some congressional Republicans acknowledge the Pentagon says the U.S. homeland is protected by the current missile defense system. But they say that moving missile defense capabilities to the East Coast is a proactive approach to the threat of Iran’s missile capability.
The first step, Sessions suggested, could be to move radars into the East Coast, the move made Wednesday by the House committee.
“We need to begin to have a radar presence that’s more effective on the East Coast, that would be the first part of that,” he said. “And I think eventually we’re going to find that’s a cost-effective way. But I don’t know if there will be a clear decision in this bill or not.”
A land based site would be nice but an Aegis ship could do the job without spending $3b.