Third missile defense site needed

The House will take up the appropriations bill for military construction today and consider what is known as the “East Coast Site.” This is a third missile defense site, in addition to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) sites in Alaska and California, capable of intercepting long-range ballistic missiles headed for the U.S. homeland.

The specific amendment would provide $20 million in spending to begin planning for its construction as soon as the Department of Defense determines where to build it. A February 2014 Pentagon press release announced four candidates for the site, Fort Drum in New York,  Naval Air Station Portsmouth SERE Training Area in Maine,  Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio,  and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.

This should be a non-partisan issue and easily passed by the committee. Here’s why:

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General Charles Jacoby, Commander of Northern Command, has explained its virtues from a purely operational standpoint. He said this year in a Senate hearing,  “What a third site gives me, whether it’s on the East Coast or an alternate location, would be increased battle space; that means increased opportunity for me to engage threats from either Iran or North Korea.” In other words, the current architecture defends the U.S. against some threats, but it is not able to defend against all kinds of threats and having another site will provide added and necessary protection.

This is exactly what is needed considering the current and last administration both agreed that the U.S. needed additional homeland defense against long-range missiles. This is why President George W. Bush intended to deploy a third site in Poland, and it is why when President Obama cancelled that plan, he replaced it with plans to deploy SM-3 IIB missiles in Poland that, although not yet developed, would theoretically have the same capability.

In 2013, President Obama cancelled his own plans for the deployment of the SM-3IIB, for a variety of reasons including the stated one: that it faced technical challenges and political hurdles, and for reasons the administration is unwilling to admit but seem likely—such as conceding to Russian opposition. Nonetheless, President Obama’s own Pentagon, working off his intelligence community’s threat assessments, supported a third homeland defense site due to the gaps in the current system. Since he cancelled both previous plans to fill this gap, the need for a third site remains.

Last, the threat has not eased up. To the contrary, Iran is closer to a long-range missile capability now than it was during the Bush administration. General Jacoby said this year in a House hearing, “we should consider that Iran has a capability within the next few years of flight testing ICBM capable technologies;” and that, “the Iranians are intent on developing an ICBM.” And what if Iran were to finally achieve a nuclear weapons capability? According to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, “We judge that Iran would choose a ballistic missile as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if Iran ever builds these weapons.”

There has been broad consensus for the need for this site, and we cannot wait until the Iranians have successfully developed missiles and nuclear weapons before we adequately defend against them. It takes time to test and deploy a working long-range defensive site. There’s no better time than now to get started.

Heinrichs is a foreign policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense. She is the former manager of the House Missile Defense Caucus.

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