Schumer Aligns Himself with GOP on East Coast Missile Shield, Lobbies for New York

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at an April 25 event in Washington. Schumer is the first senior Senate Democrat to endorse an East Coast missile shield. (Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

The idea for an East Coast missile defense system is just that, for now, at least: an idea. Sizable political and financial hurdles sill must be cleared before it becomes anything but just an idea.

Yet, the angling among lawmakers to secure a piece of the action has begun. And it was kicked off by a somewhat unlikely source: liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer. But one skeptical organization is taking umbrage with the No. 3 Senate Democrat’s lobbying to host the proposed system in New York.

The GOP-controlled House Armed Services Committee first introduced the proposal last year as part of its version of 2013 Pentagon policy legislation. The Senate Armed Services Committee, controlled by Democrats, objected. A House-Senate conference committee included negotiated language ordering the Pentagon to conduct studies about the idea, including assessments of potential sites.

Schumer is taking his pitch directly to the top, sending a letter Monday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking for his “consideration of a site New York State for the future deployment of an interceptor capable of protecting the homeland against threat from Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM).”

Schumer then lays it on thick for his old Senate mate, declaring his state “uniquely capable” of “hosting interceptor missiles and improved sensors capable of protecting the Eastern coast of from ICBM threats.”

What makes New York so qualified? Schumer says it’s because the state is home to “multiple bases” that are well-suited for the proposed shield.

To help his cause, Schumer points Hagel to a Missile Defense Agency-commissioned study, conducted by the National Research Council, on this very topic. Schumer, interestingly, aligned himself with hawkish congressional Republicans when he quoted the NRC’s findings about defending the eastern United States from Iranian long-range missiles.

“The report described our current missile defense plan as one of ‘limited effectiveness that will not be able to work against any but the most primitive of attacks’,” Schumer told Hagel, “and recommended the construction of a ballistic missile interceptor site in the northeastern part of the United States.”

It just so happens two of the three sites highlighted by the NRC study are in — you guessed it — New York. One is Fort Drum near Watertown, N.Y., and the other is the former Griffins Air Base in Rome, N.Y.

Schumer is either reading political tea leaves that the East Coast missile shield is now more likely in the wake of North Korea’s recent provocations and Iran having another year to continue its missile programs. Or he is simply chasing one of the few new, large pieces of Pentagon pork in an era of flat/declining (depending on sequestration’s fate) budgets.

The Arms Control Center on Tuesday issued a statement criticizing Schumer’s move. But, notably, the center ceded “Sen. Schumer’s statement was not blatant pork hunting” because “he did advocate for smart usage of taxpayer dollars by only offering his support ‘should military experts determine that a new system on the East Coast is necessary, workable and cost-effective’.”

But the center did charge the senator with promoting “his state as the place for federal dollars.”

The ACC statement went on to quote several missile defense skeptics, stating “anyone dreaming of new jobs in upstate New York is dreaming far into the future.”

John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, offered this:

“Developing a workable missile defense system for new East Coast site is a long way off and would cost billions before one shovel breaks ground in New York. … “The two official studies by the National Academy of Sciences and Defense Science Board have been very critical of the system’s ability to protect the U.S. or be cost-effective. … “In these times of fiscal austerity, we need to be investing in a national security strategy that addresses 21st century threats including cyber-security, drones and anti-terrorism programs.”

Kingston Reif, director of non-proliferation programs at Council for a Livable World, added this comment:

“This just isn’t a program in which the Pentagon is investing in at the moment. We cannot simply move a broken system from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

As the House Armed Services Committee prepares to move its 2014 Pentagon authorization bill later this month, which will include an OK to begin work on an East Coast shield, will Schumer’s letter give political cover to Senate Democrats to allow the upper chamber’s version of the bill to also include the proposal? Will Schumer’s support sway SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who questions whether the site really is needed and affordable?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett