There is some support in the Senate for building a missile-defense site on the U.S. East Coast, and the matter could be debated in the chamber this summer, lawmakers said yesterday.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) discussed the idea of requiring the Pentagon to bury missile interceptors on the Eastern Seaboard when the panel crafted its version of the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill behind closed doors last month. Yet SASC members opted against voting on an amendment regarding studying the missile defense facility and “deferred” the measure until the full Senate debates the legislation, perhaps next month, SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters at a breakfast.
The House-passed version of the Pentagon policy bill authorizes $100 million for planning an East Coast site after the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) crafts a proposal for it, and also requires the Pentagon to produce an environmental-impact statement on possible locations. The SASC-approved bill mentions the East Coast site, saying the Pentagon is assessing the concept in a so-called hedging strategy for homeland defense that it is crafting, but does not advocate planning the locale as the House does. Levin does not support such as facility, reiterating yesterday that the military says it is not needed.
“It’ll be one of the big issues when we go to conference,” Levin told the Defense Writers Group, referring to a House-Senate conference committee that will combine the versions of the bill their chamber pass. But, first, the full Senate will debate and amend the SASC’s version of the legislation. And an amendment to at least compel the Pentagon to deliver a study of the East Coast interceptor proposal could be offered, SASC members said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee, told Defense Daily “there is some interest” in the Senate “in the House position and/or pushing for (a) study” of its feasibility. He said some senators support the East Coast site, and one potential path they could push could be to authorize money like the House did.
Sessions was quick to note he already called on the Pentagon to study an East Coast missile defense location, yet it has not delivered that assessment yet. Last year he supported a provision in the FY ’12 authorization act requiring the Pentagon to examine the East Coast locale in the hedging strategy that it has not yet delivered to Congress.
“We’ve lost a year here,” the Republican senator said. “We’d be a lot better off if we had gotten a study...to make an analysis about whether it’s worth pursing any further....My preference would be to get the study in before we spend money. Clearly if there’s not going to be a benefit we don’t need to spend any more money on it. But if it has promise, we would need to go further.”
Sessions said if the Pentagon doesn’t deliver the hedging strategy soon he “may support one of these other alternatives, including something like the (plan in the) House.” Still, while he said he thinks an East Coast location “should be considered,” he’s “not committed to it” and wants to learn more about its technical underpinnings. He cited concerns about the pace of developing advance missiles for the Pentagon’s nascent Phased Adaptive Approach missile-defense system in and around Europe.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the SASC’s Strategic Force subcommittee, said he does not think an East Coast missile-deflecting facility is needed but agrees a study is needed.
“I think what we’ve done with missile defense programs thus far with the Phased Adaptive (Approach) program, that that’s adequate,” Nelson told Defense Daily.
“We have...people from outside the military saying the military must not know what it’s doing,” he added. “That’s why we need a study. It doesn’t hurt to have a study, but moving forward without any kind of information, that would be unwise....I think we need to know whether it’s necessary, what it would cost, and try to factor that into the overall budget process for the things that we sequester (as part of potential long-term Pentagon cuts of $487 billion), among other things.”
Strategic Command chief Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler said in a speech last month the Pentagon is looking at a potential East Coast interceptor location as part of the hedging strategy it is crafting. Yet he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey have said they don’t believe such a missile defense site is needed now.
Levin, for his part, argued the growing debate over the East Coast location is “kind of a replay of old Cold War debate.” He said there is “no military need for it,” noting the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system in Alaska and California.