Jersey Shore 2.0: An East Coast Missile-Defense Site

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The Pentagon's annual Soviet Military Poqwer books in the 1980s routinely warned that breakthroughs -- like this Soviet ground-based, missile-killing laser -- were imminent. The only thing that was imminent was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The House Armed Services Committee is set to write the annual defense authorization bill on June 5.

That means it’s showtime for all sorts of Republican craziness on nuclear weapons, missile defense, and related issues. In recent years, the GOP-led committee has produced legislation that would make even General Buck Turgidson blush.

The main event in this Strangelovian circus is likely to be the debate over the proposal to construct a national missile-defense site on the East Coast of the United States.

Last May, then-Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, caused quite a stir when he inserted $100 million for this plan in the House version of the Fiscal Year 2013 defense authorization bill. Turner has indicated that he will up the ante this year by including about $250 million to begin initial construction work on and procurement of 20 interceptors for an East Coast site.

Rushing to build a national missile defense site on the East Coast was a bad idea last year. It remains a bad idea now.

At a recent congressional hearing, Vice Admiral James Syring, the head of the Pentagon agency responsible for missile defense, was asked point-blank if Republican proposals to add $250 million for an East Coast site this year would be of use. “Not at this time,” he responded. The Pentagon has just begun studies on the idea, which will take two or three years to complete.

This is not just a case of “buy before you fly.” Rather, it’s a case of “buy before you study before you fly.”

U.S. defenses against a handful of long-range, intercontinental missiles currently consist of 30 interceptors in Alaska and California, and a network of supporting tracking radars and early-warning satellites. Known as ground-based midcourse defense, this system is designed to intercept missiles as they are travelling through the vacuum of space. In March, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon plans to deploy an additional 14 ground-based interceptors in Alaska to counter the growing North Korean and Iranian missile threats.

According to Republican leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, the interceptors deployed in Alaska and California are insufficient to protect the U.S. East Coast against potential future long-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran. In an attempt to remedy this alleged shortcoming, the House version of the 2013 authorization bill not only slipped in money — but also required that a site be operational by the end of 2015. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that building and operating an additional ground based midcourse defense location on the East Coast would cost taxpayers $3.6 billion over the next five years.

The Senate version of last year’s defense-authorization bill did not include any language on an East Coast site. During the House-Senate conference on the legislation, the House requirement for the site was eliminated in favor of a provision requiring the Pentagon to evaluate at least three possible additional locations, at least two of which would be on the East Coast. The final bill also required the Pentagon to prepare an environmental impact statement for each location. The legislation does not authorize any specific funds for the evaluation and environmental impact statements, and no funding was included in the final 2013 continuing resolution Congress passed in March.

Indeed, the Pentagon has budgeted zero dollars in its future budgets for the billions of dollars that it would cost to build an East Coast site. The initial site- selection study required by last year’s bill isn’t scheduled to be complete until the end of this year. Once a site has been selected, performing an environmental impact study on the location would take up to two years. Assuming the President gives the order to move forward with the site, construction would then take as long as five years.

As our own John Isaacs has already noted, anyone banking on jobs and dollars flowing to states such as New York and Maine, which have been identified by some as candidates to house an East Coast site, “should place their dreams on a distant platform.” But that didn’t stop Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., from offering up two military bases in his home state as ideal locations for an East Coast site. He did condition his advocacy on a finding by military experts “that a new system on the East Coast is necessary, workable and cost-effective.”

The truth is that expanding the current ground based midcourse defense system to the East Coast is unnecessary, technically dubious, and cost-ineffective.

To reiterate: The head of the Missile Defense Agency has told Congress that $250 million for an East Coast site would be of no use at this time, since it has only just begun to study the concept. Other Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that the current ground-based midcourse defense system in Alaska and California is designed to defend the entire continental United States against a limited attack from both North Korea and Iran today and in the near future. Expending resources to begin buying interceptors and digging holes to put them in before a need for these interceptors has been identified is like, well, throwing money down the drain. Moreover, it would suck funding from more urgent missile defense needs, such as the testing program and improving sensor and discrimination capabilities – especially in a time of budget austerity.

Congressional proponents of an East Coast site often point to a 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences as justification for their plan. This report did in fact call for the deployment of an East Coast site (and additional sites elsewhere in the United States), but not before the development of a brand new two-stage interceptor, a bigger more capable kill-vehicle, and supporting radars to replace the current system.

Why? Because, according to the report, the present ground-based midcourse defense system is fatally flawed. Its biggest shortcoming is that it can’t reliably discriminate between an incoming warhead and decoys and countermeasures designed to fool the defense – an intractable problem to which there is not yet a solution. The National Academy of Sciences estimated that the 20-year life cycle cost to put their new system on the East Coast site could cost up to $25.3 billion, and even then, there is no guarantee that it will work against decoys and other penetration aids.

In other words, putting the existing ground-based midcourse defense system on the East Coast would not increase U.S. defenses (because it doesn’t work) and is diametrically opposed to what the National Academy of Sciences recommended. But this is precisely what the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee is proposing to do.

While Republicans will be falling all over themselves to squander hundreds of millions of dollars for an East Coast site when the Committee marks up its version of the 2014 defense-authorization act in early June, victory will not be assured when the bill goes to the House floor. Last year, concerned that a proposed amendment by Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., to prevent spending on an East Coast site in the 2013 version might actually pass, the House Armed Services Committee leadership ordered the Rules Committee to block the amendment from being offered on the House floor.

Given that the budget environment is even more dire than it was last year (read: sequestration), coupled with the unconvincing rationale for an East Coast site, Republican defense hawks may once again have to rely on such legislative legerdemain to ensure its survival.

Kingston Reif is the director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington D.C. You can follow him on Twitter at @nukes_of_hazard.