WASHINGTON – Republicans on Tuesday simultaneously applauded the Obama administration’s decision to deploy additional long-range ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska and castigated the White House for scaling back antimissile plans in Europe.
The decision, announced on Friday, to over the next four years deploy 14 more Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors at Fort Greely came largely at the expense of a separate plan to develop and deploy in Europe next-generation missiles capable of defeating a simple ICBM launched from the Middle East at the continental United States.
The Defense Department said the shift was the result of insufficient congressional funding for the Standard Missile 3 Block 2B program as well as recent breakthroughs in North Korea’s progress toward a deliverable nuclear-armed ICBM.
“I think many of us believe that that is essentially a decision to cancel that program,” Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said on Tuesday in reference to the theoretical SM-3 interceptor.
Ayotte said she supported the administration’s decision to add the additional missiles at Fort Greely, saying “better late than never,” but criticized the government for not sticking to the original plan by the Bush administration, which would have put those interceptors into place prior to 2017.
“Me and the president don't see the world eye to eye when it comes to missile defense,” said House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). “I am pleased with his announcement on Friday that he is recognizing that what President Bush started was a responsible way to defend our country.”
Both Rogers and Ayotte told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that they believed the Obama administration reversed course on the Block 2B interceptor as a concession to Russia, which has stridently opposed the missile as a serious threat to its long-range nuclear forces.
“I’m anxious about what the president will try to do by way of executive agreements with Russia,” said Rogers.
Republicans suspect Obama might agree to constrain U.S. missile defenses in Europe in return for new negotiations on additional nuclear arms cuts with Russia. Those concerns were fueled last March when a live microphone caught Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have more “flexibility” to address the situation after the November presidential election.
“In my view it reflects a willingness on the part of the Obama administration to make unacceptable missile defense concessions to the Russians,” said Ayotte, a freshman senator who has quickly made a name for herself for her outspoken hawkish views on defense issues.
Ayotte said she believed the Obama administration was making a “mistake” in backing off from the Block 2B missile, even though the program has been criticized in multiple governmental and independent reports as a highly problematic ICBM defense of the mainland United States.
“It seems to me it has difficulties but by … canceling it right now, we are sending the wrong message” to Iran, the New Hampshire lawmaker said. “I think we should go forward on it until we have an East Coast missile interceptor site built,” she added.
Republicans are championing establishment of a third interceptor site under the GMD system somewhere on the East Coast in order to better protect the country from long-range ballistic strikes that might be launched by Iran.
The eastern half of the United States is seen as more vulnerable to a long-range missile attack as the existing complement of 30 GMD interceptors are deployed in Alaska and California. For this reason, Ayotte said she would “likely support” moving forward with constructing an East Coast interceptor site even before project environmental impact assessments under way at the Pentagon are completed.
“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she said.
Testifying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, the head of U.S. Northern Command said it would likely take years for the environmental studies for a third GMD site to be completed.
“This could be an issue of years to get another missile site down, whether it’s on the East Coast or wherever it might be,” Gen. Charles Jacoby said. “We are happy to be conducting the study that was directed in the [fiscal 2013 defense authorization act] and to provide us decision points along the way to make sure that we’re outpacing the threat.”
Several senators at the hearing said they were concerned Iran could acquire an ICBM as soon as 2015 -- years before an East Coast missile interceptor site would go online.