East Coast nuclear defense site could be in Ohio

Nuclear missiles headed for the United States could be shot down from Ohio if the state’s congressional delegation has its way.

Ohio’s members of Congress are in the midst of what one congressman calls a “full court press” to land an East Coast Missile Defense site in Ravenna, Ohio — a site that would, along with bases in California and Alaska, be capable of fending off long– and intermediate–range missiles, presumably from Iran or North Korea.

Last week, Youngstown-area Rep. Tim Ryan, D–Niles, sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to pick Ravenna.

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Ravenna is about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland.

After meetings, letters and lobbying, Ravenna may be just weeks from getting their answer.

Last week, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the Secretary of Defense and President Trump are expected to make a decision in the Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which could be released as soon as early March. That review may provide a window into whether the Trump Administration is willing to invest $3.6 billion into a third continental U.S. site that could strike down intermediate and long–range ballistic missiles. If the Trump administration decides to move forward, a decision on the site would likely occur within two months.

For his part, Trump seems more bullish on the idea than his predecessor in the White House, requesting nearly $10 billion for missile defense in his fiscal 2019 budget North Korea, too, has helped bolster his case: In November, it tested a missile with a range believed to be sufficient to hit the East Coast.

Until Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis release their Ballistic Missile Defense Review, those who want to land the East Coast Missile Defense System are in limbo: They’re not sure yet if Trump will even decide an East Coast site is necessary.

Still, said James McKeon of the Center for Arms Control and Non–Proliferation, a critic of the East Coast Missile Defense site, “President Trump has shown a bit more enthusiasm for this program than we’ve seen in the past.”

Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center is one of three finalists for the site, competing with Fort Custer Training Center near Battle Creek, Michigan and in Fort Drum, New York, which is north of Syracuse.

Landing the defense system would be a boon for whomever is picked: The Ohio delegation, in a 2016 letter to the Missile Defense Agency, said it would bring 2,300 construction jobs and up to 850 full time employees once the system is operational.

The site, they argued in that letter, is “well-suited” to help fend off the possibility of incoming missiles to the East Coast.

RELATED: US tightens N. Korea sanctions

“Ohioans stand ready to support the defense of our nation,” the delegation wrote.

“We’ve got the space, we’ve got the acreage, we can handle the construction,” said Ryan. “We’ve got the railway and the river as far as what’s needed with the buildout and we’ve got the workforce to be able to do it.”

In a fact sheet promoting Ravenna’s bid, northeast Ohio economic development agencies tout its size — more than 21,000 acres — as well as its proximity to NASA–Glenn and Wright–Patterson Air Force Base to argue that it has technology expertise readily available.

At Wright-Patterson, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center has the job of assessing ballistic missile threats to the United States from nations such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D–Ohio, said selecting Ravenna “would give the Missile Defense Agency access to Ohio’s world–class workforce, and its proximity to Akron and Youngstown would help ensure timely construction by Ohio workers.”

“This is an opportunity to build on this site’s contributions to our national defense,” he said.

If selected, Ravenna would join Alaska and California as the third site to host the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System — a missile system aimed at intercepting long– and mid–range missiles.

Currently, there are 40 interceptors in Fort Greely, Alaska as well as four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A budget bill passed last year by Congress would pay for the development of 20 more interceptors in Alaska.

McKeon said the East Coast site would primarily protect the U.S. from missiles incoming from Iran — not North Korea. Missiles aren’t typically shot east–to–west; instead, they head north before coming south again, he said.

But the technology, he said, is far from fail-safe. Tests are typically highly scripted, done in the middle of the day, not considered operationally realistic, “and they still have a 50 percent success rate,” he said.

He cites a 2013 letter from the then-head of the Missile Defense Agency Vice Admiral James Syring to Sen. Carl Levin arguing “there is no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site.”

During the Obama administration, Defense officials repeatedly expressed concern about the plan, saying they’d rather devote resources to testing and improving what already exists instead of adding to a system that is not yet fully proven. They argue that batteries on the West Coast already have the potential to cover the continental United States.

“The problem is there is no evidence thus far that this system is very effective,” McKeon said. “In fact, all the evidence suggests it cannot be relied upon to protect the United States homeland.”

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, is among those who disagree. He was chairman of the subcommittee that put the language in over the Obama Administration’s objections.

“I led the charge to plan and develop an East Coast Missile Defense Site,” he said., calling the site “an important step to ensure our country is protected from belligerent actors bent on threatening Americans with long-range missiles.”

He’s no longer chair of that subcommittee, but still, he said, he is continuing to monitor Defense as it determines whether or not to build the site.

Riki Ellison, founder and chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance argues that a third site in the continental United States is overdue.

He questioned why the government recently agreed to put another 20 interceptors in Alaska rather than invest more in the lower 48 continental states. “You want your full capacity,” he said. “You want all your states defended.”

He said Ohio has advantages in the selection process. “You’re more central from my perspective,” he said. “Ohio has more coverage for more states.”

He agrees that Trump has embraced the idea of missile defense in a way that President Barack Obama did not.

“This administration looks like it’s going to put U.S. homeland defense first,” he said.

- Staff Writer Barrie Barber contributed to this report.

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