WASHINGTON — Even congressional Democrats, typically less hawkish than their GOP cohorts, are beginning to talk about a proposed East Coast missile shield as if it’s a done deal.
After skeptical Senate Democrats late last year shot down a House Armed Services Committee plan to build a new missile defense system on US soil, even its proponents privately called implementation something of a political longshot.
But as North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, rattled his saber for weeks in late March and early April by threatening the United States with a missile strike, attitudes on Capitol Hill sharply shifted.
Strikingly, even Democrats once chilly to the costly proposal are publicly referring to the idea as if they are ready to stand aside and allow the proposal to become reality — or even support it.
During a Wednesday House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., dropped any usage of or synonym for “proposed.” Instead, he simply brought up the “construction of the [East Coast] site.”
When discussing funding for site construction and the missile interceptors, Garamendi did not ask if the Pentagon has a requirement for an East Coast site. (DoD officials in the past have said they do not; more recently, that rhetoric has slightly changed.)
“We’re looking at a situation where additional expenditures beyond ... [what will be] in the 2014 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] would be required?” Garamendi asked Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring, dropping any pretense about whether such monies would be needed.
HASC Republicans say they will insert language into their 2014 Pentagon policy bill that would clear the military to spend up to $250 million on construction of the proposed site. And they’ve urged top House Appropriators to write a check for around the same amount.
Garamendi’s matter-of-fact remarks about the site came a few days after the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, essentially endorsed the GOP proposal.
Citing a National Research Council (NRC) report, Schumer told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a Monday letter that the existing US missile shield possesses “limited effectiveness that will not be able to work against any but the most primitive of attacks.”
Schumer pointed to the NRC finding when he noted for Hagel that the report “recommended the construction of a ballistic missile interceptor site in the northeastern part of the United States.”
The senior liberal senator went so far as to lobby Hagel to build all or part of the proposed system in his home state, essentially making a move for a project that could provide an economic jolt to the Empire State before it has even been formally approved.
Schumer told Hagel New York is “uniquely capable” of “hosting interceptor missiles and improved sensors capable of protecting the Eastern coast from ICBM threats” at “multiple bases.”
Some analysts, however, are skeptical.
John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, in a statement advised Schumer and other lawmakers to avoid counting any chickens before legislation has been hatched with a presidential signature.
“Developing a workable missile defense system for a new East Coast site is a long way off and would cost billions before one shovel breaks ground in New York,” Isaacs said.
“The two official studies by the National Academy of Sciences and Defense Science Board have been very critical of the system’s ability to protect the U.S. or be cost-effective,” Isaacs said. “In these times of fiscal austerity, we need to be investing in a national security strategy that addresses 21st century threats including cyber-security, drones and anti-terrorism programs.”
The Pentagon is working on an environmental study of potential sites. That study was the result of House-Senate talks on the 2013 Pentagon policy bill, which watered down the original House language.
Syring told the subcommittee he should complete that study no later than September, including the identification of three potential host sites.
From there, he would like to make a formal recommendation on a single home to senior DoD officials by the end of the calendar year. It will be up to Pentagon brass to make a final recommendation to Congress, but Syring indicated there’s no set timetable for that transmission to Capitol Hill.