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House GOP Lawmakers Consider Missile Interceptors on East Coast

A U.S. missile interceptor lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during a 2010 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Two high-profile GOP legislators have called for the armed forces to formally consider deploying ground-based missile interceptors in the eastern United States (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo). A U.S. missile interceptor lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during a 2010 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Two high-profile GOP legislators have called for the armed forces to formally consider deploying ground-based missile interceptors in the eastern United States (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

Two prominent Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Wednesday proposed that the military explore establishing silo-based missile interceptors somewhere on the East Coast, Reuters reported (see GSN, March 28).

The suggestion by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and the head of the panel's Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), is to be taken up by the lower panel on Thursday. The proposal has a good chance of being approved by the GOP-dominated committee as a measure within defense authorization legislation for the next fiscal year.

The act, however, would ultimately have to pass out of conference committee with the Democrat-led Senate.

The proposal calls for the Defense secretary to carry out no later than the end of 2013 an environmental study on "possible locations on the East Coast of the United States for the deployment of a missile defense site." The department's Missile Defense Agency would then be directed to create a plan for establishing an interceptor site on the East Coast that would go live before 2016.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system currently deploys 30 long-range missile interceptors in silos at military bases in Alaska and California. The program is the country's main domestic shield against a possible ballistic missile strike from an enemy state such as North Korea.

It was not apparent on Wednesday if the White House would object to congressional efforts to set up a third GMD interceptor site.

Proponents contend the plan would strengthen the Ground-based Midcourse Defense initiative against a feared ICBM strike by Iran. A probable site on the East Coast is Fort Drum in upstate New York, experts have said.

"The committee is aware that a cost effective missile defense site located on the East Coast of the United States could have advantages for the defense of the United States from ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East," the bill states (Jim Wolf, Reuters, April 25).

The legislation would allow an additional $100 million to implement the third interceptor site plan, Wired reported.

Republican House staffers said the East Coast interceptors are needed as Iran could be within three years of wielding a continent-spanning ballistic missile.

"By the administration's own estimate, Iran could have an ICBM by 2015. And if they get it by 2015, we've got a defense ready to go," one staffer told Wired.

Previous predictions of Iran's missile development, however, have proven incorrect. For example, Donald Rumsfeld in 1998 headed a committee that said Iran would have an ICBM by 2003. 

Tehran has used ballistic missile technology to fire satellites into orbit. That technology could be used, with some specific alterations, to develop ICBMs. Despite that potential, Iran's does not presently have any missiles that can travel further than 800 miles, according to Wired.

"The bottom line is that the intelligence community does not believe (the Iranians) are anywhere close to having an ICBM," said ex-CIA Middle East specialist Paul Pillar in a February interview.

The Defense Department maintains that interceptors in Alaska and California are capable of defeating ballistic missiles launched from the east. "The ground-based interceptors fielded in Alaska and California will provide protection from any future Iranian ICBM capability," states the 2010 Ballistic Missile Review.

Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly last week testified to Capitol Hill lawmakers that a planned communications center at Fort Drum would only improve the interceptors' precision.

Furthermore, the Obama administration's developing "phased adaptive approach" for European missile defense would provide the United States with another layer of protection; deployed sea- and land-based interceptors under the plan would have an earlier opportunity to thwart any missile attacks launched from the Middle East. The European missile shield is presently projected to be fully implemented in 2020. Two recent U.S. government analyses, however, have raised serious concerns about the feasibility of the shield as currently planned (see GSN, April 23).

The Defense Department has a history of exaggerating its antimissile capabilities, according to Wired. Even with in excess of $150 billion spent on ICBM interception systems, the military has not been able to routinely demonstrate the ability to destroy long-range missiles.

The Obama administration several years ago said it would put forth a "hedging" plan to handle the possibility of Iran quickly coming into possession of ICBMs or of planned next-generation U.S. interceptors never coming into fruition.

"We got tired of waiting [for the hedging strategy] so we made our own," a Republican House staffer said (Noah Shachtman, Wired, April 26).

Turner, in a Roll Call commentary on Thursday, criticized the Obama administration for cutting missile defense funding.

"In his first budget submission to the Congress, Obama slashed $1.16 billion out of the missile defense budget in a single year," according to the lawmaker. "The fiscal 2013 budget plan for the next five years is $3.6 billion less than even Obama’s own five-year plan submitted last year and $2 billion less than the previous administration projected for fiscal 2013."

"Of course, this is consistent with what candidate Obama said in the 2008 campaign -- that he doesn’t 'agree with a missile defense system,'" Turner wrote. "When the president has requested support for missile defense, it has been to support missile defense capabilities other than our own."

Citing MDA budget numbers, Turner said for ever $1 spent on domestic antimissile systems, an $4-$5 is spent on antimissile systems deployed abroad (Representative Michael Turner, Roll Call, April 26).

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