By Dan Freedman Published June 27, 2019

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, is taking credit for the Pentagon’s designation of Fort Drum as its “preferred” site on the East Coast for defending the region and the nation against missiles launched by rogue nations such as North Korea.

In a letter dated June 26, Undersecretary of Defense Michael Griffin said Fort Drum won a three-way competition “by a small margin.” The other two possibilities were Fort Custer in Michigan and Camp Garfield in Ohio.

The decision is the result of a 2013 congressional directive requiring the military to study the feasibility of an East Coast installation.

But defense officials have long insisted the two existing missile sites are sufficient to defend the entirety of the United States. The two are located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greely in Alaska.

Although he put Fort Drum on top, Griffin also said because DOD has concluded “there is no operational requirement for an East Coast” missile-launch site, and therefore “the department has no intent to develop one.”

Griffin added that “should a requirement for an East Coast (missile site) emerge, the decision would be re-evaluated.”

Stefanik declared the missile-site designation as a major victory for the 168-square mile post and the Watertown region surrounding it — all within Stefanik’s sprawling 21stNorth Country congressional district.

“This will be one of the most significant achievements for New York of my time in Congress,” said Stefanik, a third-term Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee. “This is a huge achievement. Local officials tell me this is the most important thing to happen at Fort Drum since the 10thMountain Division” was reactivated in the 1980s and placed at Fort Drum.

Missile defense in the U.S. has had a long and complicated history in the development of U.S. defense policy. Planners have said the nation’s missile-defense should be capable of shooting down all inbound targets, with a more-recent focus on North Korea and other rogue nations.

The ground-based system is augmented by missiles on U.S. Navy frigates.

Stefanik last year won $15 million in this year’s defense appropriations budget for planning and design.

She brushed aside the military’s conclusion that the Fort Drum site is unnecessary.

“Despite the department’s response, Congress has been driving this strategy and I do not believe the two facilities in the West are sufficient,” Stefanik said.

An East Coast addition to the two existing installations gives military personnel monitoring potential threats more time to determine whether they are real threats or not, she said. Such a determination can be critical to saving lives if it is real or aborting a potentially deadly response if it is not.

A missile site would boost Fort Drum, already the region’s largest employer with more than 15,000 soldiers and close to 4,000 civilian employees.

Stefanik estimated the missile site, if it is built, would create “tens of thousands of jobs” and yield a short-term economic impact of $20 million.

She credited political leaders and boosters in and around Watertown for welcoming personnel of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency during their visit. And, she added, out of the three competing districts, she was the only local member of Congress on hand to greet the planners.

Since the early days of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan for space-based missile interceptors, the system has had a hit-and-miss record that critics have cited in arguing that it is too expensive and too unreliable.

Missile Defense Agency data shows that of 19 ground-based missile tests since 1999, 11 have failed — a failure rate of close to 58 percent.

But Stefanik insisted that accuracy is the military’s responsibility, and the job of Congress is to assure the Pentagon has the authorization and funding it needs to build and perfect the system.

“Of course accuracy is important,” she said. “But my job is to provide the funding to get this done.”

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