30 November 2016
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Pentagon expects to decide by the end of the year whether Fort Drum would make an ideal location for the nation's first missile interceptor base near the East Coast, a potential $3.6 billion project that could be an economic boon for New York's North Country.
Two other military installations - Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan - are in competition to be designated as the site of the project, which could bring up to 1,450 new military, civilian and construction jobs.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is wrapping up a two-year study that will recommend one of the sites to Congress, fulfilling a mandate from lawmakers supporting the development.
But no matter which site is chosen, it's unlikely anything will happen to develop the missile interceptor base for years, if ever.
The Pentagon and its top generals in charge of missile defense insist the project is not necessary, and that the billions it would cost would be better spent upgrading the nation's two existing interceptor sites at Fort Greeley in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In test firings, the ground-based missile interceptors have an inconsistent track record, succeeding at destroying only about half of the incoming missiles.
Chris Johnson, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency in Washington, said the existing sites are more than adequate to defend the U.S. from emerging threats posed by Iran or North Korea with the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
"The department has made no decision to deploy or construct an interceptor site on the East Coast, and there is no expressed military requirement for an additional ground-based interceptor site," Johnson said in a statement. "The current sites provide the necessary protection of the U.S. homeland."
Johnson said military officials have no plans to move forward with development of an East Coast site. The study, completed at a cost of about $6 million, will likely sit on a shelf after it is delivered to Congress.
Members of Congress push project
Some members of Congress are not convinced the two existing interceptor sites are adequate to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the United States, and have continued to push for an East Coast defense site.
Among those leading the effort is Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, whose district includes Jefferson County and Fort Drum, the sprawling Army post that houses the 10th Mountain Division about 80 miles north of Syracuse.
Stefanik, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, succeeded last year in securing $30 million in a defense authorization bill for the construction planning and design work needed for an East Coast site.
White House officials singled out Stefanik's request as an example of misguided defense spending priorities.
But after the Nov. 8 election of President-elect Donald Trump, and with Republicans maintaining control of both the House and Senate, Stefanik believes the project is more likely to move forward.
"She is optimistic that, working with the Trump Administration, she and her colleagues in Congress will reverse the dangerous military drawdown that has occurred under the Obama Administration and develop robust defense capabilities, including additional missile defense," said Tom Flanagin, a spokesman for Stefanik.
Likewise, the congressional delegations in New York, Ohio and Michigan have expressed bipartisan support for development of an East Coast missile interceptor base.
"Ultimately, the construction of a CIS (Continental Interceptor Site) in New York would provide increased battlespace, greater decision time, increased reliability and a different angle of intercept," the New York House delegation wrote in a letter last month to the Missile Defense Agency.
The letter was signed by 21 of New York's 27 House members, including Reps. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld, from Central New York. New York's two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, also signed the letter.
Schumer, the new Senate Democratic leader, said he will support the project as long as surrounding communities make it clear they would welcome the installation, and "military experts determine that a new system on the East Coast is necessary, workable and cost effective."
Fort Drum community rallies support
In addition to members of Congress, the community surrounding Fort Drum near Watertown made it clear that it would welcome the missile interceptor site, including the risk that it would make a bigger target out of the sprawling Army installation from U.S. adversaries.
Fort Drum neighbors would have to live with the threat of the region becoming a higher priority target from enemies with intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of a nuclear strike. But it's nothing new to Upstate New York.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union kept three nuclear warheads aimed at Griffiss Air Force Base and the city of Rome, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency report disclosed by The Post-Standard as part of a series of articles in 1988.
Griffiss, about 50 miles from Syracuse, was a target because the base's B-52 bombers were capable of delivering a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
An additional Soviet nuclear warhead was aimed at the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, once the Army's primary East Coast storage site for nuclear weapons.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency has not yet made public the comments it received about the potential site at Fort Drum. But the agency disclosed that the overwhelming majority of the 7,507 comments received from the pubic were in favor of the project.
The Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, a nonprofit community group that advocates for sustainable growth around the post, collected 7,287 signatures on a petition from local residents supporting the project.
Additional comments were submitted at a public meeting about the project in August 2014 near Fort Drum in Carthage.
The Fort Drum community group also provided the Missile Defense Agency with 200 resolutions and letters of support from local organizations and business that want the interceptor site at Fort Drum, said Kevin Jordan, who chaired the organization's missile defense task force.
All told, the Missile Defense Agency said it received about 15,500 public comments before an Aug. 17 deadline from people and organizations living at the three sites under consideration. That means roughly half of all of the comments were from the Fort Drum community.
Jordan said he knows that military officials and members of Congress are at odds about the need for the project, and that it might not be built. But he said the potential economic benefit was too big for his organization to take lightly.
"From a community standpoint, we recognize all of that debate needs to get done," Jordan said in an interview. "But we also know that we are looking at project at Fort Drum that could create 600 to 800 permanent jobs. If we didn't do what we did in the way that we've done it, we wouldn't have been considered. The community looks at this as an economic development effort."
A massive project
Jordan said his group provided the Missile Defense Agency with information showing that Jefferson County and the surrounding region will be able to supply the labor and infrastructure to develop the missile interceptor site.
The Missile Defense Agency said it would require 1,219 acres at Fort Drum to house an undetermined number of ground-based missile interceptors in underground silos.
All of the land needed for the project is owned by the federal government, and no private property would have to be acquired.
The missile interceptors are non-explosive warheads that are launched if an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile strike is detected. The interceptors are designed to travel outside of the atmosphere, where they use infrared and satellite data to crash into and explode the incoming missile in space.
The Missile Defense Agency study concluded that only one road would have to be partially closed for the project, Route 3A in Jefferson County, re-routing traffic through the village of Carthage.
"We pointed out that these are communities that used to have a lot of traffic from paper mills, and they would welcome that kind of traffic," Jordan said.
The Fort Drum development group also noted that Jefferson County's housing and schools could accommodate any new residents that would come with the missile defense site.
"We've been able to adequately house upwards to 18,000 to 19,000 soldiers and families," Jordan said. "There's no reason we can't continue to do that."
Opponents of the missile interceptor site say members of Congress have the wrong priorities when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. Carol Baum, staff organizer for the Syracuse Peace Council, said economic development should not be tied to a war economy.
"Syracuse has incredible poverty, and why are we trying to build something we don't even need while people are suffering?," Baum said. "I think it's outrageous."
An uncertain future
Once the Missile Defense Agency selects a preferred site, it's likely to unleash a new debate in Congress about the need for the project.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog group of scientists and engineers, has already raised concerns about the feasibility of an East Coast missile interceptor site, especially since the existing interceptors have a spotty track record in test firings.
"Indeed, the system has failed to intercept test missiles in eight of 16 attempts since 1999, even though operators were given significant information about the 'attack' ahead of time, including the time and place of the launch," the group wrote in a 2014 report. "And its test record has not improved over time."
Trump could be the new wild card that determines the future of an East Coast site. He did not directly address the issue during his presidential campaign. But he did call for eliminating the sequester cuts on defense spending and said he would increase military spending as president.
Trump said in September that he wants to boost the nation's missile defense
systems as part of a larger plan to rebuild the military.