March 21, 2013

Missile Defense Boosters Press Case

Source: Politico

Missile defense advocates are trying to build momentum for a new missile site inside the United States, a goal tied up as much with the conservative mantle of Ronald Reagan as it is with national security or the influence of the defense industry.

Republicans see an opening created by last week’s Pentagon announcement that the U.S. will field 14 more ground-based-missile-defense interceptors in Alaska by 2017. Defense officials who explained the decision said it’s a “hedge” against the chance that a new North Korean missile might endanger the continental U.S. So what about the threat from Iran, advocates ask — if Pyongyang’s progress justifies new missiles on the West Coast, shouldn’t Tehran’s potential progress spur a new site along the Atlantic?

The brass says no — for now.

“We currently can defend the entire United States from an Iranian long-range missile threat,” Gen. Charles Jacoby, head of U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday in response to a question on the matter by Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

In 2012, Jacoby said the state of the threat did not necessitate an East Coast missile field. In his testimony Tuesday, he did not make a request for such a site but said that it would be wise to keep “options open” as the threat from Iran develops.

For missile defense boosters, though, that’s not good enough. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon of California and 18 other Republicans sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday, urging him to request “not less than $250 million” for an East Coast site in his pending budget submission.
Earlier, supporters included a provision in the 2013 defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon to conduct a review of a potential third missile site in hopes that getting the paperwork under way soon might jump-start the process.

Advocates warn that an Iranian threat might catch the U.S. off guard. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) cited reports on Tuesday that said Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. With that in the background, she asked, how long would it take to build an East Coast site?

The answer, Jacoby said, is that it is “an issue of years,” depending on how long it took to complete the environmental impact statement. “It’s quite a proposition,” the general said. “Of course, that could be affected by urgency, any increased threat.”
The “2015” deadline is a favorite of East Coast missile defense backers, but a Congressional Research Service report last year qualified that significantly, finding that Tehran might be able to test a missile by then “with sufficient foreign assistance,” while noting that Russian and Chinese support had “reportedly diminished over the past decade.”

“It is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015 for several reasons,” the CRS report concluded. “Iran does not appear to be receiving the degree of foreign support many believe would be necessary, Iran has found it increasingly difficult to acquire certain critical components and materials because of sanctions, and Iran has not demonstrated the kind of flight-test program many view as necessary to produce an ICBM.”

But backers like missile defense for more than just national security reasons — it’s been part of a strain of Republican politics since Reagan announced the U.S. would pursue what he called his Strategic Defense Initiative, or as it also came to be known, “Star Wars.”

In fact, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who has emerged as one of the East Coast missile site’s most ardent advocates, gave a speech on missile defense Tuesday at a Heritage Foundation event commemorating 30 years since Reagan’s SDI speech.
Heritage is a major force on behalf of missile defense — it sponsored an hourlong movie, “33 Minutes,” that warns of what it calls the threat of a missile attack and calls for U.S. missile defense.

“Thirty years following President Ronald Reagan’s SDI speech, the United States still does not have a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system,” Heritage said in promoting its event. “While the geopolitical landscape has changed in the interim, the threat from ballistic missiles has continued to grow. Now more than ever, the United States needs a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system.”

Keeping that theme, Ayotte’s policy speech began with an exhortation that “President Reagan’s vision and national security principles” be kept in mind when considering the issue of missile defense.

She went on to call it “unacceptable” that an East Coast missile site would not be completed until 2018 or 2019, even if efforts to start it began today.
“The United States, as soon as possible, should begin the construction of an East Coast missile defense site,” she argued.

Ayotte joked about the other factor involved with growing missile defense — it’s a business opportunity for the defense industry — though she said she was chiefly concerned about the safety of the U.S.

“Now — and I’m not doing this just because I’m a senator in the Northeast,” she said to audience laughter. “But I would like the people of New Hampshire to be protected, along with New York and Washington and everywhere else on the East Coast.”
Massachusetts-based Raytheon, as well as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other influential defense players, all could stand to benefit from the additional missiles, radars, system integration and other hardware involved with increased missile defense.

“With anyone on the Hill, there’s going to be a mix of policy and political reasoning behind what they want to do,” noted Jacob Stokes, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security. “If there is increased investment on the West Coast … then you’re going to see others focusing on the East Coast.”

So when Hagel last week announced plans for the deployment of additional missiles to the West Coast, he put missile defense back into the headlines and created an opportunity for defense advocates.

“The Department of Defense’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but is late to need and does not go far enough,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Tuesday. “The threat is real and the need for a third site to better protect the East Coast is growing every day.“

Despite the high-profile push since Friday’s announcement, there are a fair number of dissenters to the prospect of an East Coast missile defense site — even if these dissenters might not be found on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Those who oppose the project list at least two problems with it: the technology is insufficiently advanced, and the threat is not yet serious enough.

“The technology that we have on the West Coast right now has not been demonstrated to be effective,” argued Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association. “They’ve only intercepted half of their targets during carefully scripted tests … hardly a basis for confidence.”

This is not even to mention, Collina added, that the Iranians do not have “any long-range missile program to speak of.”

“Until the technology and the threat is there, I don’t understand why we’d want to spend the money,” he said.


  • Jacob Stokes

    Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Jacob Stokes is a Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, where his work focuses on U.S.-China relations, Chinese foreign and military policy, East Asian ...