Lawmakers are pressing the Defense Department to move forward with plans to build a missile defense site in the continental U.S.
The Pentagon would rather invest in upgrading its network of sensors and family of kill vehicles -- the top part of the interceptor -- to better spot and destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from North Korea or Iran, according to the military's second highest-ranking officer.
"There's been a lot of talk of installing an East Coast missile field," Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"However, the only reason to make that investment would be to provide the capability to shoot, assess and then shoot again," he said. "And we can only do that if we have the sensors we need in order to be able to do so. So we need to put our ability to see targets at the head of the line and therefore there's been no decision yet by the department to move forward with an additional CONUS interceptor site, though we very well could do that," he added, referring to acronym for continental United States.
The Republican-led House of Representatives voted to include $30 million in its version of the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act for the Missile Defense Agency to conduct "military construction planning and design activities for an East Coast site for homeland missile defense," according to a report accompanying the bill.
That section of the legislation, which sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, was referring to adding a third site for the Pentagon's Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which already houses interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The Defense Department requested $1.6 billion for the system next year, a 60-percent increase from this year, according to budget documents. The additional funding, if approved by Congress, would be used to conduct more flight tests and redesign the kill vehicle. It would also go toward upgrading and expanding the number of interceptors from 30 to 44, including an eventual 40 at Greely and four at Vandenberg.
There are four sites under consideration for storing interceptors, including SERE Remote Training Site in Maine, Fort Drum in New York, Camp Ravenna in Ohio, and Fort Custer in Michigan.
The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the legislation didn't include funding to design another interceptor location, but did add language that would require Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to "develop a plan for expediting the deployment time for a potential future continental United States interceptor site by at least two years," according to a report accompanying its version of the bill.
A DoD study on the plan would be due next year, after the submission of an environmental impact statement for an East Coast missile defense site.
The Senate panel is concerned that the five years needed to build an operational site "may be too lengthy if necessary to react to the deployment of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles in Iran," the report states. "In such a circumstance, it would be advantageous to understand if, and how, an additional interceptor site in the United States could be made operational in 3 years or less."
The Republican-controlled Senate must still approve its version of the legislation before negotiators from both chambers of Congress can work out a compromise bill.
Winnefeld said the existing Vandenberg and Greely sites protect the U.S. from the projected ICBM threat from North Korea and Iran -- "should either of them really emerge." While an additional location would add interceptor capacity, it would also be expensive to develop and sustain, he said.
"We need to be careful," he added. "While that site could eventually be necessary, as I said, in the near-term upgrading the kill vehicle on the [ground-based interceptor], improving our ability to discriminate, and enhancing the homeland defense sensor network are higher priorities for us in improving our protection against limited ICBM attack."
Some Democrats have in recent years have expressed concerns about the reliability of the technology, which hit targets in only 8 of 15 attempts through mid-July 2013; the high cost of testing, which runs more than $215 million per exercise; and the fact that many of the interceptors aren’t operational.
Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency, has acknowledged the system faced a more demanding development schedule that resulted in interceptors being deployed before testing was complete. Indeed, when a three-stage booster launched from Vandenberg and intercepted a dummy warhead last summer, it was the first successful test in five years.