This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee on Thursday called a House initiative to deploy a missile defense site on the nation’s East Coast before 2016 “a replay of an old Cold War debate” (see GSN, June 4).
“There’s no military need for it,” Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters during a breakfast question-and-answer session.
“We’ve got coverage of the United States with this European system,” said the lawmaker, referring to plans for a NATO-backed defensive network to address potential ballistic missile threats from the Middle East. He also cited the existing Ground-based Midcourse Defense sites in Alaska and California, which the Defense Department has said are sufficient to meet antimissile requirements.
The House on May 18 passed a fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill calling for a missile defense installation on the East Coast to be built and operating by Dec. 31, 2015.
In the lead-up to establishing the new defenses, the Defense secretary must by the end of 2013 complete an evaluation of potential locations, the legislation directed. The measure allocates $100 million to begin planning work in the upcoming budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
“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 House Armed Services Committee said in a report accompanying the 2013 authorization bill.
The panel also asked that the Pentagon provide Congress an “interim analysis on feasibility and cost” by Feb. 1, 2013.
With Levin’s Senate committee having included no similar requirement in its version of the 2013 defense spending policy bill, the Michigan Democrat said the House initiative to create an East Coast site “will be one of the big issues when we get to conference.”
The idea of an East Coast site “has no basis in military requirement” and was “put in the House bill as a [congressional] mandate, workable or not,” he said.
Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) considered offering an amendment to Levin’s bill during committee debate that called for a Pentagon study of the East Coast antimissile site concept. The measure also would have required the Defense Department to assess the environmental impact for three potential missile defense locations on the East Coast and begin initial planning, but it stopped short of demanding actual deployment, Levin spokeswoman Tara Andringa said on Friday.
The amendment was dropped at the committee level. Levin on Thursday said he was not yet certain if such a measure would be offered on the Senate floor.
Floor debate and a vote on the legislation could occur as early as July, he said, speaking at a Defense Writers Group event.
One detractor of the East Coast site idea is forecasting that a review of the concept -- minus a deployment mandate -- is probably what will emerge from an eventual House-Senate conference to resolve differences in the two defense authorization measures.
“When in doubt, study an issue. That’s what the conferees are likely to do,” said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World.
“This can be seen as a camel’s nose under the tent” toward ultimately deploying a third U.S. site or, alternatively, “tossing a sop when the Senate has no intention to go along” with the House move toward fielding, Isaacs told Global Security Newswire on Thursday. He added: “We hope for the latter.”
Washington Post “In the Loop” columnist Al Kamen recently poked fun at the House initiative by launching a reader contest to nominate where on the East Coast interceptors might be situated.
“Where should the missiles go?” Kamen wrote last month. “Maybe we could circle Manhattan with interceptors to protect the job creators on Wall Street? Or group them at the Baseball Hall of Fame in central New York to protect the national pastime? Hide them within the Epcot theme park in Orlando? Put a few in Chincoteague to protect the wild ponies?”
To the House Armed Services Committee, though, the concept is no laughing matter.
In their recent legislative report, panel lawmakers asserted that some widely respected organizations and individuals -- to include the Institute for Defense Analyses, the National Academies, and a previous military head of U.S. Northern Command -- had examined “the potential contribution” of an East Coast site.
“Certain of these studies have recommended that work begin on the development and deployment of such a site,” according to the House document, which did not specify which reviews supported or rejected the idea.
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Levin also said the United States “should consider going far lower” than the 1,550 strategic nuclear warhead ceiling established for each side by the U.S.-Russian New START agreement, which entered into force last year.
“I can’t see any reason for having as large an inventory as we are allowed to have under New START, in terms of real threat, potential threat,” he said.