At the urging of Congress, military officials have begun considering East Coast sites for an anti-ballistic missile system that doesn't work and the Pentagon doesn't want. But members of Congress can't let such details stand in the way. Now states are vying to score the $4 billion allocated for this dubious effort.

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The missile defense gold rush has begun.

Since the media is barely reporting on this story, a brief recap: Since 2004, the U.S. has spent $40 billion to develop and deploy interceptors (above) that would destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles launched at the United States by countries such as North Korea and Iran But, ever since the Bush administration decided to rush the system into development, the program has been plagued by mismanagement and design flaws. The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council published a 260-page study, saying that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's efforts "have spawned an almost 'hobby shop' approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts."

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Yet, despite numerous failed tests, the U.S. deployed 30 interceptor missiles at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Additional interceptors might deployed in Alaska.

And then, earlier this summer, Congress voted to expand the system further, authorizing funds to build a third interceptor site on the East Coast. Among the critics of the idea? The Pentagon.

As an article in Arms Control Today reported:

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In a setback to congressional proponents of a new missile interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast, senior military officials wrote…. that there is no military requirement for such a site and that the funds would be better spent on improving sensor capabilities for the existing system of interceptor sites in Alaska and California.

Compared to another missile interceptor site, investments in "discrimination and sensor capabilities" would be a "more cost-effective" way to better protect the United States from long-range ballistic missiles, [the officials] wrote. Independent experts have criticized the U.S. system for not having the sensors, such as X-band radars, that would be necessary to distinguish actual threat warheads from missile debris and other decoys.

Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, testified in May that the East Coast is already "well protected" by the 30 [interceptors] now deployed and that the plan for another 14 interceptors "provides additional protection" against "anything from North Korea as well as anything from Iran, should that threat develop."

Which brings us to today. Hearings are currently being held in Maine, Ohio and Michigan, where the public can pose questions to military officials who are conducting an environmental review to help determine which of the three states will be the lucky recipient of a brand new, $4 billion defense system that won't make the U.S. any safer.

All Politics Is Local

New York seems almost giddy at the prospect of getting this shiny new toy. A missile defense site at Fort Drum (above), sprawled across hundreds of acres, would initially deploy 20 interceptors, with the potential to expand to 60. As the local newspaper, the Watertown Daily Times, reports:

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The economic impact on the north country would be substantial. The site would create 400 to 600 temporary construction jobs, and an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 permanent military, civilian and contractor jobs, according to Lt. Col. Chris W. Snipes, program manager for continental United States interceptor sites.

Nearly 100 people attended an open house-style meeting at Carthage High School to hear Fort Drum and Missile Defense Agency officials describe the project….Many echoed their support.

John F. Gallagher, of Carthage, saw military value in such a placement, comparing it to missile defense resources in Israel.

"The missiles that worry me are the ones coming in," he said. "If you don't think it'll happen, you may be living in a hole."

And North Country Public Radio noted:

Fort Drum employs more than 20,000 military and civilian personnel now. It leveraged $1.4 billion for the region last year, according to the base's economic impact statement.

But the military has already deactivated one brigade at Fort Drum. And the Pentagon wants to downsize the Army nationwide by another 70,000 troops over the next few years.

Jo Ellen Heukreth of Deer River says bringing the missile defense site to Fort Drum would help protect the base from any future downsizing.

"Every time they do one of those close downs, and everybody freaks out because Fort Drum is going to close, I think this is another reason they're going to keep it open."

Unsurprisingly, both Republican and Democratic candidates for New York's 21st Congressional District, where Fort Drum is located, have voiced their support. "If the Defense Department decides that a missile defense site is necessary for the security of our nation, then Fort Drum would be an ideal location. This would strengthen Fort Drum's mission and help protect North Country jobs in the long term," said Democrat Aaron Wolf.

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"As the U.S. Missile Defense Agency continues to discuss the possibility of an East Coast missile interceptor base, I will fight to ensure that Fort Drum is a leading contender for the East Coast missile defense site. This would bolster our local economy and ensure that the military post continues to grow," said Republican Elise Stefanik.

The lone dissenter was Green Party candidate Matthew Funicello: "It's a boondoggle and I hope we have the intelligence to see it for what it is. And just because the other guys are for it doesn't mean they're being honest."

Meanwhile in Maine, Defense Department officials are considering a Naval survival training camp in the rural, western part of the state as a possible site.

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At a public hearing last week, Maine residents seemed less excited about hosting the system, despite the money it would bring in. As the Associated Press reported:

Not everyone was thrilled by the idea. Critics raised concerns about construction damaging the natural beauty. Others were concerned about the toxicity of missile fuel, the Sun Journal reported.

"It is a no brainer; totally inappropriate for this location," Bob Kimber of Temple said. "Why is that kind of money being spent on more defense when people are starving in the U.S.? Why are we continuing to start wars in this country?"

And the Editorial Board of the Portland Press Herald rejected the plan outright:

The United States has spent billions of dollars in the last decade on a missile defense system designed to protect the country from threats from other nations such as Iran and North Korea. Unfortunately, that system has proved to be as unreliable as it is expensive.

That leaves only non-military reasons, such as the infusion of federal dollars and the promise of new jobs, for creating an additional site. And that likely explains why Congress, not the Pentagon or the Obama administration, is pushing the matter.

(In Maine, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has advocated for a missile site in Maine to be considered, while U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, said he is awaiting the results of an environmental impact study.)

The potential economic benefits of a new site, however, are disputed. And in any case, it is the proficiency of the system, not its effect on the local economy, that should be the deciding factor on matters of national defense.

To be sure, there are environmental concerns at each of the sites, particularly in Maine, where the silos would dot the surrounding pristine and rugged mountains.

But we don't need an environmental review to tell us that spending billions to expand an erratic missile defense system is a bad idea.

Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish

As these public hearings have been taking place, another security debate has been unfolding in Washington, DC. Nuclear weapons experts at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs have published research revealing that the Obama administrations has proposed cutting the amount of money spent on an array of programs to secure nuclear bomb materials around the world and keep them out of terrorists' hands — to $555 million next year from $700 million in fiscal 2014. And in Congress, there are efforts to suspend nuclear security cooperation with Russia.

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As the Harvard researchers recently wrote in the New York Times:

None of this makes sense, given the growing power of terrorist movements in the Middle East, the consequences if such terrorists made a crude nuclear bomb, and how modest the price of nuclear security has been — never more than two out of every $1,000 in America's defense budget. Slowing these efforts would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. And cutting off cooperation now, when urgent tasks to improve nuclear security remain, would only add nuclear security to the list of victims of Russian aggression.

This cooperation is not a favor to Russia. It is an investment in vital American security interests. Yet under the president's proposed 2015 budget, funding for removing nuclear materials from vulnerable locations would be halved, to $58 million from $115 million, allowing fewer such removals than in any year in the past decade. Converting research reactors from high-enriched to low-enriched uranium fuel would be extended five more years; deploying border equipment to detect smuggling would be delayed; work to better protect sites where radiological material (useful for dirty bombs) is stored could slow so much that the task wouldn't be finished until 2074.

And, three days ago, a bipartisan group of 26 senators wrote this letter, calling on the President to support increased funding in the FY2016 budget to more rapidly secure and permanently dispose of nuclear and radiological materials. The amount of additional funding they asked for? $219 million.

And that's where things stand. We're moving ahead on $4 billion project to build a defense system that doesn't work and we don't need, while U.S. Senators have to plead for a fraction of that funding to secure nuclear materials against possible theft. Government boondoggles are nothing new, but in this case the consequences could be quite literally catastrophic.