Missile-defense advocates are concerned that rogue nations may develop long-range nuclear missile capabilities. As a result, some support the construction of a third U.S. missile-defense site which would increase battle space to detect and destroy incoming missiles. In response to this concern a study was mandated by the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act which requires identification of potential locations for a third missile-defense site, at least two of which must be on the East Coast. The progress of the authorized study marks a small step forward in constructing a third missile-defense site in the U.S., but a decision is still way off.
Thus far the Pentagon has announced five possible locations for a potential third missile-defense site: Fort Drum in New York, Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Vermont, a U.S. Navy training site in Maine, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan. Officials must choose one final location in the subsequent phase, which is expected by the end of the year. Once a location is selected, a rigorous 18-24 month environmental impact assessment will be performed. If Washington decides to construct another missile-defense site after the assessment, it is crucial for the system to be effective rather than hurriedly deployed as a symbolic gesture. The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System is one example of how rushed missile-defense systems could lack reliability (it has a 50 percent success rate) if they are deployed prior to thorough testing. The last thing the U.S. needs in an era of budget cuts is a missile-defense site on the East Coast that does not work.
Critics frequently highlight the hefty price-tag of a third missile-defense site, which is expected to cost over $1 billion and up to $5 billion. While the cost is high, it is worth noting that both the Bush and Obama Administrations’ past policy decisions agreed with the need for a third missile-defense site, but differed on implementation. The Bush Administration chose to construct a Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) site in Poland to protect the homeland from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Obama Administration then chose to cancel the Poland site and replaced it with the SM-3 IIB program (a missile that would have the capability to protect the U.S. from an ICBM). Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the halt of the SM-3 IIB program and replaced it with the addition of 14 interceptors to the GMD System in California and Alaska in response to the increasing North Korean threat.
Financing a third missile-defense site would be a problem, but Washington must take into consideration that America needs to boost protection of its homeland as other nations continue to develop their nuclear programs. North Korea launched its first three-stage rocket in December 2012 (that has a potential range of more than 4,000 miles, putting Alaska and Hawaii within striking distance) and conducted its third nuclear test in February of this year. Furthermore, Pyongyang has threatened to turn Washington into “a sea of fire” and has broadcast online footage of a missile attack launched from North Korea aiming for the U.S. Two other nations, India and Pakistan, are not part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and continue to modernize their nuclear programs.
On another note, a phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama (which marked the first time leaders from both countries have directly communicated since the 1979 Iranian revolution) may lead to a compromise on Tehran’s nuclear program ambitions. Iran intends to present a three-step plan that would secure the independence of Iran’s civilian nuclear program while giving guarantees that the country is not trying to assemble atomic weapons. While these are encouraging developments, Washington should not forget Iran’s hostile past which includes threats to launch missiles against U.S. interests and U.S. allies in the region, to close the Strait of Hormuz (a transit point for about 20 percent of the world’s oil) with its naval forces, and support terrorist organizations to counter U.S. interests.
As Iran makes an effort to reassure the world that it does not seek to assemble nuclear weapons (one of the main justifications for a third missile-defense site), the U.S. could still benefit from its construction given that other nations, like North Korea, are actively increasing their nuclear capabilities. While funding a third missile-defense site will be a struggle, constructing one in the future will only be more expensive. It is essential for Washington to stay ahead of threats to protect the nation instead of fantasizing about a utopian world without nuclear weapons, which does not reflect current reality.
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