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Missile defense site at Fort Drum is integral to the homeland defense mission

Forty years ago, President Ronald Reagan unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). As long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States would maintain credible deterrence against its nuclear rivals, and President Reagan made sure of that. He believed it was unwise and wrong to leave Americans vulnerable to nuclear attack if deterrence failed. He understood that active defenses were a necessary component to the suite of options for the United States to protect Americans. The aim to bolster U.S. homeland defense is as important today as it was in 1983.

Today, we face markedly different threats than we did during the Cold War. Rather than having one peer nuclear adversary, the United States now faces two. China is undergoing a generational strategic breakout of its nuclear weapons and military leaders are uncertain about the strength of Chinese nuclear forces a decade from now. At the same time, Russia is nearing completion of a massive nuclear weapons overhaul and Moscow continues nuclear saber rattling to deter the United States from aiding Ukraine as it defends itself from the Russian invasion.

Concurrently, rogue state North Korea is advancing its nuclear and missile launch capabilities and breaking its own records in number of illicit missile test launches, including by recklessly fight-testing missiles over sovereign Japanese territory. Meanwhile, Iran advances its missile program via its space-launch program and maintains capability to quickly develop a nuclear weapon should it choose to do so.

The United States’ current homeland missile defense architecture is a limited version of what Reagan envisioned in 1983. The United States maintains a fleet of roughly 44 aging Ground-based Interceptors (GBI) in Alaska and California, which continue to outlive their intended service time. The homeland defense architecture is limited due to technical challenges, programmatic mismanagement, and poor prioritization, but also because of the argument against Reagan’s maxim that defenses are stabilizing, not provocative.

Republican and Democratic administrations have sought to convince our adversaries that U.S. defenses are not designed to degrade the potency of their offensive forces and would remain limited in capability, but we must unequivocally reject this aim and stop making this argument to the Russians and the Chinese. Defenses that deter our adversaries from attacking the homeland are stabilizing by definition.  Russia and China are investing significantly in their own missile defense programs, evidenced by China’s recent successful mid-course missile interception test. We must do the same.

Our adversaries do not consider the U.S. homeland off limits. According to General Glen VanHerck, Commander of U.S. Northern Command, the current threat to the homeland is significant and is the most complex and dynamic strategic environment in his 35 years of military service. Adversaries are targeting the U.S. homeland with a variety of offensive capabilities with unique characteristics.

One way to immediately improve the U.S. homeland missile defense architecture and better protect against adversaries’ increasing and evolving ballistic missile capabilities, the United States is to build a third missile defense interceptor site on the East Coast of the United States. In 2019, after years of congressional and in particular Stefanik’s advocating for increased homeland missile defense capabilities in response to the evolving threats from our foreign adversaries, the Department of Defense designated Fort Drum in Upstate New York as the preferred location for this third missile defense site in the continental United States. Fort Drum is ready to host this critical site and play an integral role in our nation’s homeland missile defense landscape.

In his recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, endorsed the notion that constructing a third missile defense site on the East Coast is strategically worthwhile and would further enhance the protection of the United States. The director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral Jon Hill, also echoed the importance of a third site before the Armed Services Committee, supporting Chairman Milley’s assessment and restating the critical role missile defense plays in deterring our adversaries.

These critical testimonies build on years of Stefanik’s leadership to identify the need for, and secure the designation of, Fort Drum as the preferred East Coast Missile Defense site. Through subsequent years, Fort Drum’s designation has been maintained and continued to move forward with required reports to continue planning a third interceptor site at Fort Drum for this in both the 2022 and 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.

A third site at Fort Drum would provide significantly enhanced “shoot-assess-shoot” capability for ballistic missile defense, which will allow the shooting of one interceptor and full assessment of its success prior to taking additional defensive action. This interceptor site at Fort Drum will also provide critical operational redundancy to the homeland missile defense mission should one of the other sites be unable to operate.

It is not an option to simply accept that adversaries will continue to evolve their offensive capabilities to hold the American homeland at risk. It is the federal government’s primary responsibility to provide for the common defense and the United States must prioritize applying advanced technologies to defense. The Missile Defense Agency’s mission is so critical its importance should be reflected in the resources the Congress commits to it.

There are other opportunities to advance missile defense, including the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI), the hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor (HBTSS), and a space-based missile kill capability to complement the land and sea-based systems. All of these are important and deserve bipartisan support. But there are efforts we can seize that would bolster our security in the near term and communicate to North Korea and Iran that we refuse to remain vulnerable, and we will lessen the coercive effect of their nuclear threats.

Fort Drum is ready today to fully become an integral part of the homeland defense mission. It would be foolish not to start preparing now for the threats of the next 50 years. It is critical we begin the process of constructing this site today to ensure the protection of the American people, both now and for decades to come.  

Elise Stefanik represents the 21st District of New York and is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chair of the House Republican Conference. Rebeccah Heinrichs is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Tags Mark Milley Missile defense Ronald Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative

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