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September 12, 2013

Pentagon Picks Camp Ethan Allen as Finalist for Missile Defense Site

* Updated throughout at 3:55 p.m. *

The Vermont National Guard's Camp Ethan Allen has been selected as a finalist to host a potential East Coast missile defense facility, according to the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

The Jericho site was one of five chosen by the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency to contend for the system, which is designed to destroy nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles. The facility would be operated by the Department of Defense — not the Vermont Guard — and could host 20 interceptors.

Leahy said Thursday morning he would oppose Camp Ethan Allen's selection as a missile defense site. 

"I’ve always felt that the multiple billions spent on missile defense are a monumental waste of money, on technologically challenged systems, and I am emphatically against putting one of these sites in Vermont," Leahy said in a statement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Gov. Peter Shumlin joined Leahy later Thursday in criticizing the Pentagon's announcement. 

"My first impression is that this is a very bad idea and, for a wide variety of reasons, I do not believe that it will ever happen," Sanders said.

"This is absurd," Welch added. "It's the wrong location for a bad idea and dead on arrival."

Said Shumlin, "Vermonters are well-served by our federal delegation's thoughtful involvement and deep experience in these issues, and I agree with Senator Leahy, Senator Sanders and Congressman Welch."

All four men are strong supporters of the Pentagon's proposed basing of F-35 fighter jets in Vermont.

In a letter to Leahy, Missile Defense Agency director and U.S. Navy Vice Admiral J.D. Syring wrote Thursday that the agency "is conducting a study of possible additional locations to determine their suitability for a potential future interceptor deployment site."

Other finalists for the site, according to Syring, include Ohio's Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center, Maine's NAS Portsmouth SERE Training Area, Michigan's Fort Custer CTC and New York's Fort Drum.

But whether the facility will be built at all remains an open question.

At present, the U.S. operates two "ground-based mid-course defense" (GMD) systems — at Alaska's Fort Greely and California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. In recent years, House Republicans, led by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), have agitated for a third site to be located on the east coast. Senate Democrats, including Leahy, have opposed that plan, calling it wasteful and unnecessary.

Compromise language included in a 2013 defense spending bill called for a study to determine whether a third site would be effective — and to consider potential locations. Congress has yet to actually appropriate funding for such a facility.

In his letter to Leahy Thursday, Syring noted that, "There has been no decision to deploy an additional interceptor site in the United States." But to prepare for the possibility, his agency "will contact the installation commands as part of a data gathering process associated with the siting study assessing potential candidate interceptor sites."

"Once the data gathering phase is complete, the sites will be reassessed to develop a list of the sites suitable for further consideration," Syring wrote. "On-site visits will be part of the reassessment."

In a statement released later Thursday, Syring clarified that, "While the administration has not made a decision to build another missile defense facility... completing the required site study and environmental impact statement would shorten the timeline required to build such a site."

Syring added that the Pentagon would likely take 18 to 24 months to complete environmental impact studies at the system's potential locations. Those would not begin until after the ongoing siting study is completed.

In a separate statement released Thursday afternoon, Vermont National Guard Col. Michael Heston, the deputy adjutant general, confirmed that Ethan Allen would be subject to a "site survey." 

"A small team of [DOD] personnel will conduct surveys to assess the infrastructure to include electric power supply, water resources and transportation access of the location," Heston said, adding, "This is all preliminary and no final decisions have been made."

Despite House Republicans' zeal for the project, the military itself has questioned the need for an east coast site. Responding to a letter from Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Syring and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Richard Formica wrote in June that the Pentagon sees "no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site."

Formica heads the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense.

Syring and Formica suggested in the letter that the military would be better off investing in improvements to the Ballistic Missile Defense System's "discrimination and sensor capabilities."

"While a potential East Coast site would add operational capability, it would also come at significant materiel development and service sustainment cost," they wrote. 

Assistant Secretary of Defense Madelyn Creedon elaborated on those cost concerns Thursday in an interview with Reuters, which pegged the cost of a new site between $1 and $5 billion.

"There's no money in the [future]... for an East Coast missile site," she told Reuters. "We have no money for this."

The GMD system itself has been plagued with problems. 

An interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in July failed to hit a long-range ballistic missile originating from an Army testing range in the Marshall Island, according to the New York Times. It was one in a series of failures, the Times' Thom Shanker reported:

Philip E. Coyle III, who once ran the Pentagon’s weapons-testing program and is with the Center for Arms Control, said in a statement that the system “is something the U.S. military, and the American people, cannot depend upon.”

Mr. Coyle said there had been no successful tests of the ground-based, midcourse missile-defense system, like the one launched Friday, in five years. Pentagon officials acknowledge that the interceptors had a mixed record, hitting dummy targets just 50 percent of the time.

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