The ranking Republican on a key Senate Armed Services subcommittee joined with the former head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to advocate for an anti-ballistic missile base on the United States’ eastern seaboard.
“Without prompt action, we are going to see a narrowing margin of safety when it comes to missile defense,” said New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, in a panel convened by the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative Tuesday.
While complex radar systems and interceptors missiles are deployed in Alaska and California to counter North Korean threats, Ayotte worried that the lack of a comparable system along America’s East Coast leaves the nation’s political and industrial heart vulnerable to Iranian attack.
“We no longer have plans to augment our missile defense against a ballistic missile threat from Iran,” she said, referencing the Obama administration’s cancellation of an interceptor missile base in Poland after Russian opposition. “It’s totally unacceptable.”
“If we went through the whole approval process, we would not have an East Coast [missile defense] site until 2018 or 2019, three years after public assessments of when Iran would have inter-continental ballistic missile capability,” Ayotte continued.
“We were surprised by North Korea. Let’s not be surprised by Iran,” she finished.
Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency from 2004 to 2008, echoed the senator’s remarks and argued that missile defense programs were worth the cost.
“If you go back and look at every penny we’ve spent on missile defense since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan started the program, the total cost is around $158 billion,” he said.
“The damage from 9/11 cost $83 billion, and the New York Times reported that the economic cost of the attack was $3.3 trillion. Imagine if that had been a weapon of mass destruction on a ballistic missile. What would the cost have been?”
Obering said that the Missile Defense Agency has not yet decided where to build an East Coast missile defense base, but stressed that the decision would be based on practical concerns.
Building the base would cost a projected $3 to $4 billion dollars. The Missile Defense Agency currently spends around $10 billion on research, development and maintenance every year.
Not all lawmakers and military leaders are thrilled by the prospect of a new base. In a June 10 letter to Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, the current director of the Missile Defense Agency, Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin asked if Pentagon regulations required the construction of a new site and wondered if there was a less expensive and more immediate alternative available.
Syring replied that no such requirement exists. He said he does not support an East Coast base and that the planned deployment of new radar systems should adequately defend the eastern seaboard.
“While a potential East Coast site would add operational capability, it would also come at significant materiel development and service sustainment costs,” he wrote.
U.S. ground-based missile defense systems have suffered technical setbacks in recent weeks. The Daily Caller News Foundation reported that an interceptor missile failed to hit its target during a July 5 test over the Pacific Ocean. It was the third such failure in a row following the last successful test of the system in December 2008.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on July 12, top congressional Republicans blamed Obama administration spending cuts for the botched test.
Ayotte and Obering agreed with that conclusion, calling the program worthwhile in spite of recent difficulties.
“Opponents of missile defense will seize on this failure and call for additional delays and funding cuts,” the senator said. “That’s exactly the wrong approach.”
Obering emphasized the long-term success of the ground-based missile defense program. “It’s a tremendously robust test system overall,” he said. “Since 2001, 60 of 76 tests have resulted in successful hit-to-kill intercepts.”
“There have only been very rare situations where the tech itself has not worked,” he explained. “Usually it’s been a quality control failure.”
“We’ve made tremendous progress against a threat that is only going to grow,” Obering concluded. “This is way too important not to get right.”
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