The commander of U.S. strategic forces said recently that the military is studying deployment of an East Coast long-range missile defense interceptor base that others in the Pentagon are opposing.
Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in remarks Wednesday that the military is considering a long-range interceptor site to augment facilities in Alaska and California.
"Of course the commitment has been to deploy a limited missile defense system to protect essentially the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii against a limited threat, specifically—and the way this began—from North Korea, potentially to extend that farther if we need to," Kehler said.
The currently deployed system can handle only a "limited threat," he said.
"The question that we have is twofold, really; it's really a hedge question," Kehler said. "What do we do next if the threat either grows faster than we had anticipated or if the threat changes in some way?"
The current U.S. missile defense system—designed for long-range range and thus high-speed missiles—is primarily directed at North Korea, which recently tested a long-range missile and has nuclear arms.
The more than 30 interceptors deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, do not have enough firepower to stop an Iranian missile fired at the United States.
House Republicans passed a section of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon to deploy an operational East Coast site by 2015. It mandates a study of three possible locations.
U.S. officials said the possible sites include Loring Air Force Base, Maine, a strategic base that was closed in 1994, and the Army’s Fort Drum in upstate New York.
The House defense bill requirement says the study by the secretary of defense on the East Coast base should look at using two- or three-stage ground based interceptors; and Standard Missile-3 interceptors, including an advanced, in-ground variant.
Kehler, in his comments, said the emergence of a "multidimensional threat" of limited nuclear missile attack could emerge from "multiple countries," a veiled reference to Iran.
"Those are the questions that are going on, and how we address that threat remains to be seen," he said during remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kehler said the Pentagon is working on a "hedge strategy" that was requested by Congress, and one question is whether the East Coast site would fit into the hedge strategy.
"And the answer is that remains to be seen," Kehler said. "Right now, we are committed to continuing with the deployment of the pieces of the missile defense system that are already programmed in the program of record, upgrades to radars and some other things that [we] are doing. How we respond beyond that remains to be seen."
The comments drew a response from the Missile Defense Agency. A MDA spokesman said there is no current requirement for the third site.
"The Defense Department's position is that an East Coast site isn't needed, and no funding was requested in the FY13 defense bill submitted in February," said spokesman Rick Lehner, who noted "MDA supports this position."
U.S. officials said the Obama administration opposes the idea because it undermines the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach that was formulated after the administration abandoned plans for a ground-based, long-range interceptor site in Poland as a concession to Russia in talks on missile defenses.
However, the European plan to use less-powerful SM-3 interceptors on ships and eventually in ground-based silos lacks capability for countering a long-range missile strike on the U.S. homeland until later in the current decade, at the earliest, with an untested SM-3 variant.
"Very few people think the [European Phased Adaptive Approach] will work," said a U.S. official.
As a result, there is a push to build a U.S.-based interceptor base.
Rep. Michael Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee and a supporter of the East Coast site, mentioned President Obama’s offer of "more flexibility" to the Russians in reaching a missile defense agreement with Moscow after his reelection. The comment, caught on an open microphone at a Seoul summit, triggered widespread concern that the president planned to limit U.S. missile defenses as a way to assuage Russian fears that long-range missiles threatening the United States would be neutralized.
"He has some secret deal or plan, and we want to make certain that we’re making the missile defense system robust, while he is—at the same time—announcing internationally that he wants to weaken it," Turner told Fox News.
U.S. officials said the U.S. Northern Command in 2007 studied the need for an East Coast interceptor site but shelved those plans after the Obama administration canceled the Polish interceptor site.