U.S. Reps. Elise Stefanik and John Katko say it's a great accomplishment, after years of advocacy, for the Department of Defense to name Fort Drum as its preference for an East Coast missile defense site. But they acknowledge there is more work to do to establish the interceptor site at the upstate New York Army installation.
Members of Congress learned in June that Fort Drum has been identified as the "preferred" Continental United States interceptor site by the Department of Defense. In a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Under Secretary of Defense Michael Griffin summarized the department's assessment of four potential missile defense sites — Fort Drum, Camp Garfield in Ohio and two locations at Fort Custer in Michigan.
Griffin explained that Fort Drum "provides the best operational coverage" of the four sites. However, he noted that it would be the most expensive option and poses the most environmental challenges.
"At this time, and by a small margin, Fort Drum would be the preferred CIS in the eastern United States," Griffin wrote. "However, since the Department's 2019 Missile Defense Review determined there is no operational requirement for an East Coast CIS, the department has no intent to develop one."
Despite the department's assertion that there is no requirement for the development of an East Coast missile defense site, Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, is confident the bipartisan coalition she's formed in Congress can ensure the project advances.
"Looking back historically, the department has been tepid in the need for an East Coast missile defense site," said Stefanik, who joined Katko for a joint interview with The Citizen. "We have been able to overcome that by asserting our congressional authority."
Establishing a missile defense site at Fort Drum will be a multi-year appropriations priority, Stefanik said. The project would cost an estimated $3.6 billion.
One reason Stefanik and Katko, R-Camillus, support bringing an interceptor site to Fort Drum is the economic impact. It could create 1,450 jobs and generate $220 million annually in total economic value added to the North Country, Stefanik wrote last year in a letter that was signed by Katko and seven other members of New York's congressional delegation.
Katko and Stefanik agree that hosting the missile defense site at Fort Drum could make the base "BRAC-proof" — a reference to the Base Realignment and Closure process used by the Department of Defense to determine if military installations should be shuttered.
"I don't support BRAC and I don't anticipate another round of BRAC anytime soon," said Stefanik, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "But if that time comes, Fort Drum will be in an incredibly strong position because not only are we uniquely qualified for training with the 10th Mountain Division, especially cold weather training, but also having the missile defense there further solidifies economically the importance of Drum."
Katko believes a missile defense site at Fort Drum would provide economic benefits to his district, too. He said there are some soldiers stationed at Fort Drum who live in his district and there are constituents who are civilian employees at the base.
Soldiers and employees at Fort Drum visit the Syracuse area to use the airport, stay in hotels or eat at restaurants, Katko said. The proposed missile defense site, he continued, would be "nothing but positive news for upstate New York."
Katko and Stefanik agree that adding a missile defense site on the East Coast would bolster national security. With countries like Iran and North Korea seeking to improve their ballistic missile capability, such a defense system could protect the U.S. from intercontinental ballistic missiles.
An East Coast site, Stefanik said, would provide a greater opportunity for the systems to work. There are two missile defense sites in the U.S.: Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Stefanik highlighted the years-long effort required to reach this point. When she first ran for Congress in 2014, she decided that develop an East Coast missile defense site at Fort Drum shouldn't be limited to her district. She sought and secured support from other New York members. The goal, she explained, was to show that this was a New York-wide priority.
The coalition also included constituents who supported Fort Drum as the missile defense location. Stefanik lauded New Yorkers who submitted supportive statements to the Department of Defense. Fort Drum received more positive statements than the other military installations under consideration, she said.
Stefanik's advocacy included hosting the Missile Defense Agency when they visited Fort Drum to conduct the environmental impact statement. Some of her activities occurred behind the scenes in conversations with the national security adviser, the defense secretary and Army secretary.
"Elise deserves the lion's share of the credit here," Katko said. "This is her highest priority and it's one of my highest priorities because it's that important for New York state and the country."