FPI Bulletin: Protecting the U.S. East Coast from Iran’s Emerging Nuclear and Missile Threats

June 12, 2013

As lawmakers work on the House and Senate versions of legislation to authorize the Pentagon’s programs for fiscal year 2014, the debate over how to defend the United States against Iran's growing ballistic missile threat is heating up.

Since the United States initiated its missile defense program to defend the homeland in 2002, both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to bolster the two Ground-Based Midcourse Defense sites in California and Alaska with an additional anti-missile interceptor site.  This is because a "third site" would give the U.S. military both more space and decision time to engage an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack, as well as a different angle to intercept—and a better ability to discriminate and target—the ICBM attack, thus increasing the overall reliability of U.S. homeland missile defense.

Although President Bush planned to deploy additional Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) at such a third site in Poland, President Obama opted instead in 2009 for a plan to eventually deploy in Poland an alternative missile interceptor, known as the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIB.  Different name, but basically the same idea—deploying anti-missile interceptors to a third site where they could dramatically enhance the defense of the U.S. homeland against the growing reach of Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile program.

In March 2013, President Obama again restructured his missile defense plans and canceled the development of the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor.  Although Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said at the time that he would conduct a congressionally-mandated study about building a third GBI site on America’s East Coast, the Defense Department now apparently opposes congressional efforts to move forward with construction.

Thanks to a bureaucratic trick, congressional opponents of a third site appeared to receive a boost this week.  In response to a letter from Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), Vice Admiral J. D. Syring, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, and Lieutenant General Richard P. Formica, Commander of the Joint Functional Command for Integrated Missile Defense, wrote on June 10th:  “There is no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site.”

What is problematic is that both Senator Levin’s letter and the Defense Department’s response omit an important fact:  the U.S. military develops and deploys ballistic missile defense systems in response to high-level presidential directives and enacted laws like the National Missile Defense Act—and not to the Pentagon’s internal bureaucratic process for generating military requirements.  As such, the Defense Department is not obligated to internally generate a “validated military requirement” to develop and deploy missile defenses—rather, the President and Congress, in effect, have created a standing military requirement for missile defenses both as a matter of policy and law.

Nonetheless, while missile defense skeptics may be tempted to argue that their case is now closed, such an argument substitutes bureaucratic tricks for serious analysis.  The Pentagon’s claim that there is no need for a third site contradicts President Obama’s own national-level missile defense policies, as articulated by the Obama administration’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review.  In that report, the Defense Department described its intent that the “defense of the U.S. homeland will be augmented by Europe-based SM-3 Block IIB interceptors, which are planned to be able to provide an early-intercept capability against potential Iranian ICBMs.”  In other words, by a third site.

Although lawmakers argued over the transition from GBIs to the as-yet-undeveloped SM-3 Block IIB interceptors, that decision reflected, at the least, a consensus in Washington over the need for additional missile defense capabilities to protect the homeland.  The United States currently has two homeland missile defense sites—at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California—designed primarily to protect the United States from missile attacks emanating from North Korea.  It is no secret that these sites are not optimized to defend against a potential Iranian threat, however.

In fact, the U.S. military’s combatant commanders who are responsible for defending America’s homeland against missile threats have gone on the record in support of a third site to protect the East Coast.  For example, General Charles H. Jacoby, Commander of the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19, 2013:  “What a third site gives me, whether it’s on the East Coast or an alternate location, would be increased battle space; that means increased opportunity for me to engage threats from either Iran or North Korea.”

In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on March 20, 2013, General Jacoby added:  “I would agree that a third site, wherever the decision is to build a third site, would give me better weapons access, increased GBI inventory and allow us the battle space to more optimize our defense against future threats from Iran and North Korea.”

In addition, General Robert Kehler, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 12, 2013:  “I am confident that we can defend against a limited attack from Iran, although we are not in the most optimum posture to do that today… it doesn’t provide total defense today.”  A key reason why the United States does not have, in General Kehler’s words, something resembling an “optimum posture” to defend against even a limited ICBM attack by Iran is that the Obama administration has neither genuinely prioritized nor consistently funded and developed the required missile defense programs to more fully defend the U.S. homeland.

In fact, the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence community have made clear that Iran’s potential nuclear and missile threats to the United States are not receding, but rather growing.  Indeed, in the unclassified portion of an April 2013 report to Congress, the Pentagon warned:  “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

If the United States is to successfully compete and protect against Iran’s growing nuclear and missile threats, then it must move proactively—not reactively—to mitigate them.  The President and Congress should therefore not only fund and quickly deploy an X-band radar on the East Coast that will boost the reliability of America’s current ground-based and sea-based anti-missile interceptors, but also advance efforts to build a third site for homeland missile defense on the East Coast.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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