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June 17, 2013

Playing Word Games While Iran Builds Bombs

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Politicians sometimes use word games and bureaucratic trickery to stop initiatives they disagree with. The most recent example: Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) June 6 letter to the head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, ardently opposes building a missile defense facility on the East Coast.  Disturbed that the House is considering a proposal to develop an East Coast site, Levin fired off a letter to Vice Admiral James D. Syring asking if there exists a “validated military requirement” for the missile defense site.
 
Syring, the director of the MDA, dutifully responded, “No.”  Levin then triumphantly posted the letter on his website, under a headline screaming, “Senior officers: ‘No validated military requirement’ for East Coast missile defense site.”
 
Understandably, this presentation led many lawmakers and members of the press to believe that there is no military justification for the site.  But that’s not at all what the “senior officers” were saying.
 
The simple fact is: there is no “validated military requirement” supporting any missile defense program. Even President Obama’s “European Phased Adaptive Approach” for European missile defenses lacks such validation. Why?  Because the MDA is officially excused from having to go through the time-consuming, bureaucratic rigmarole of producing “validated military requirements.” 
 
Levin knows this. It’s why he used that terminology in his query.  It was bound to elicit a “no,” which could then be used to mislead people into thinking that an East Coast missile defense site would serve no valid purpose.
 
But the reality is this: Intelligence assessments have found repeatedly that Iran is moving forward in developing long-range missiles.  A recent IAEA report confirmed Tehran is making great progress on its nuclear program as well. Clearly, a capability to intercept Iranian missiles is more crucial than ever.
 
Even President Obama, no friend of missile defense, recognizes that we need a missile defense site to mitigate the Iranian threat. This was the mission of the SM-3IIB, the missile defense system he planned to deploy in Europe. The administration later cancelled this program for several reasons: technical problems, Russian objections, and the State Department’s desire to reach an arms control agreement with Moscow. But the security rationale behind erecting that defense remains wholly valid.
 
Admiral Syring’s response acknowledged that an East Coast site would provide “operational capability”—something we really need.  But his letter noted there could be more “cost-effective near term” alternatives to an East Coast site.
 
Again, lawmakers must read between the lines. Would more interceptors in the California and Alaska sites we already have be helpful? Yes. Would improving the systems we already have in place be helpful? Undoubtedly. And the U.S. should do them. But the U.S. should not implement the cheapest options in place of the option that would provide significantly increased security.
 
Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III (USAF, ret.), a former MDA Director, and other senior military officers have made it clear an additional site would be uniquely helpful.  As Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, commander of the U.S. Northern Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “What a third site gives me, whether it’s on the East Coast or an alternate location, would be increased battle space; that means increased opportunity for me to engage threats from either Iran or North Korea.”
 
When it comes to national security, there’s no place for word games and petty partisanship. Lawmakers should work together to fund and ensure deployment of a third site as quickly as possible.
 
-Heinrichs, an expert on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, is a Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Hill.

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