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By Tony Capaccio
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel should include funds in the Pentagon’s next budget request to start work on a U.S. East Coast site for 20 anti-missile interceptors as a defense against Iran, House Republicans said.
The plea for “not less than $250 million” in the fiscal 2014 budget to be presented next month was made Tuesday in a letter from 19 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, led by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the committee’s chairman.
For the second consecutive year, the lawmakers are pushing for an East Coast array of interceptors to complement the 30 already deployed in a $34 billion system on the West Coast. They seized on Hagel’s announcement March 15 of plans to add 14 more in Alaska by fiscal 2017 to counter escalating threats from North Korea as it seeks to develop nuclear weapons.
“There is no legitimate reason to not similarly defend the eastern third of the U.S. from Iranian missiles,” they said in the letter.
“In fact, it appears Iran could flight-test an ICBM this year,” the lawmakers wrote, without citing evidence for their contention that the nation is close to producing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Expanding the anti-missile system would benefit defense contractors including Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which makes the interceptors topped by hit-to-kill warheads from Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Mass. Chicago-based Boeing Co. manages the ground-based system.
The anti-missile array’s effectiveness remains in question. Since the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency began testing it in 1999, interceptors have struck dummy targets in eight of 16 tests.
The Republican lawmakers cited Hagel’s plan to pay for the $1 billion expansion in Alaska with funds previously planned to develop a faster and bigger missile interceptor for a European-based system that is aimed in part at Iranian missiles.
The lawmakers said this amounts to cancellation of the advanced rocket, the SM-3 IIB, leaving a “large gap” in defenses against Iran’s potential nuclear arsenal. The U.S. and European Union have imposed economic sanctions to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which they say may lead to development of an atomic bomb. Iran says its program is for civilian purposes.
The letter presages a political fight in the 2014 fiscal budget process over a third U.S. site. The lawmakers may press their case today during a hearing with Army General Charles Jacoby, head of the U.S. Northern Command, which would manage operation of the system if the U.S. were attacked.
Jacoby told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that while an East Coast site isn’t yet required, it may prove to be needed if the Iranian nuclear threat evolves.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate panel, opposes an East Coast site as unnecessary. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee’s top Republican, favors it.
An East Coast site “would have advantages over the Alaska-based interceptors” and those planned in southern Europe in providing enhanced protection “against a Middle Eastern threat,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., and a former State Department intelligence official.
“Whether such an expensive scheme would be cost-effective in terms of the stressed defense budget is a different question,” he said in an email.
North Korea or Iran “would be deterred from a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies by the certainty that such an attack would result in the end of their regimes - not by the possibility that some of the missiles they fired at the United States might be intercepted,” he said.
The House Armed Services Committee included $100 million of initial funding for an East Coast anti-missile array in its version of this year’s defense authorization bill. The provision was rejected by the Senate panel, and a compromise directed the Pentagon to produce an environmental impact statement on potential East Coast locations. Hagel said last week that the Pentagon was conducting the required study.
The lawmakers’ demands are buttressed in part by the findings last year of a nonpartisan review by the National Research Council. It recommended adding a third site, potentially at Fort Drum in upstate New York or in northern Maine, in tandem with additional precision tracking radar.
This approach would “more effectively protect” the eastern United States and Canada, “particularly against Iranian ICBM threats should they emerge,” the council said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last week in his annual threat assessment of Iran that it “would likely choose a ballistic missile as its preferred method” of delivering a nuclear weapon “if one is ever fielded.”
“We grow increasingly concerned” that Iran’s technical successes at launching a small satellite will “provide Tehran with the means and motivation to develop” longer-range missiles, including ICBMs, Clapper said.
The last successful intercept of a target by the U.S. system was in December 2008. In 2010, it failed to hit targets in two tests using a new warhead, one in January and the other in December. After those failures, the agency found a flaw in the guidance system of the newest Raytheon-made warhead.
A test to intercept a target is scheduled for later this year to confirm that the guidance flaw has been fixed, and Hagel said last week that the Pentagon won’t proceed with adding more interceptors unless it does.