WASHINGTON — Momentum behind establishing a third missile defense interceptor site in the United States continues to build, with lawmakers urging the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to move even faster and pushing to have the site located in their home states.
In a hearing before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee May 8, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, said he hoped to have a site recommendation in to the U.S. Department of Defense by the end of the summer.
The MDA currently has interceptors at two U.S. sites: Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in March that the MDA would increase the number of interceptors at Fort Greely and begin looking for a third site in the United States, something Republican lawmakers have been pushing for the past year.
MDA officials are investigating three locations, two on the East Coast, which they have not specified, and another at Fort Greely.
The possibility of a third site has led to a flurry of jockeying from Congress members.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter to Hagel May 6 suggesting that defense officials consider New York as home for the interceptors.
“New York is home to multiple bases that are uniquely capable of hosting interceptor missiles and improved sensors capable of protecting the Eastern coast from ICBM threats, and I urge you to strongly consider the state when evaluating possible additional locations,” he wrote.
Schumer pointed to a National Research Council study that recommended an interceptor site in the northeastern part of the country and specifically suggested two sites in New York.
Similarly, on May 3, Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), along with Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), wrote Hagel recommending Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.
The Ground Based Interceptor “remains an important strategic need for our nation and it is critical that our nation select locations which can potentially guard our nation from attack and prevent potential enemies from acting against U.S. and global interests,” the letter says. “We are confident that after the previous studies are reviewed and updated with a current site survey; you will find [Grand Forks] remains an ideal solution for this mission requirement.”
The Ground Based Interceptor is the pointy end of the U.S. territorial missile shield.
On April 26, 16 Republicans on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee wrote Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, asking for $250 million next year to build a missile defense site on the East Coast. The lawmakers said they will authorize spending for an East Coast site and 20 interceptors when they draft a 2014 defense authorization bill this year.
But when asked by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) during the May 8 hearing if an additional $250 million next year would help the MDA given where it is in the selection process, Syring said it would not.
Syring said he expected an environmental assessment at whatever site the Pentagon chooses could take 18-24 months and then construction could begin.
“That really bothers me,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
Lamborn suggested that Syring’s forthcoming site recommendation include a request for a waiver to expedite the process.
Syring said the MDA is planning for an interceptor test late this year that “underlies everything we are doing.”
In announcing plans for expanding the U.S. territorial shield, Hagel said the Ground Based Interceptor would have to prove itself before the MDA begins purchasing additional units.
The upcoming test will focus on the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) Capability Enhancement 2, the business end of the missile shield, which is designed to home in on its target and destroy it via direct impact. It is an upgraded version of the EKV that tops the 30 U.S. missile interceptors deployed today at Vandenberg and Fort Greely.
A December 2010 intercept test using the enhanced kill vehicle ended in failure due to a guidance error. Shortly thereafter, in February 2011, the flight test program was suspended, and it has yet to resume.
Syring told lawmakers the problems experienced during the failed test are isolated, explainable and repeatable.
An additional intercept test is in the budget for 2014, he said.
Syring, who took the helm of the MDA in November, said he has made clear to his staff that he would like to see at least one intercept test each year.