Sometime in early 2017, and it could be any day now, one of the communities on the map below (designated by red dots) will get big news from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Congress mandated the MDA to choose a preferred location in case the United States decides to build an additional deployment site for the Ground-based Midcourse (GMD) System missile defense.
The site studies were on track to wrap up at the end of 2016. We’ve updated our fact sheet on it, posted here.
There’s no military requirement for an additional missile defense site. Nor was the idea of building a third site (in addition to the two existing ones in Alaska and California) the result of a rigorous study of what would best improve the system’s ability to intercept ballistic missile threats to the homeland.
But you can count on Congress to run with this idea and push as hard as it can.
Every year since 2012, Congress has attempted to dedicate/earmark money to build such a site, despite Pentagon budgets that never included a dime for it. When asked, missile defense officials have said repeatedly that they have higher priorities for their next dollar. And they are skeptical about what starting this expensive project would do to their priorities in a constrained budget environment, including improving the reliability and effectiveness of the existing system. Improving reliability and effectiveness would be a good thing. The GMD system has been plagued with serious reliability problems and has a poor test record.
However, congressional delegations (with a few exceptions) from Michigan, New York and Ohio have crossed party lines and asked the Missile Defense Agency to support locating the site in their respective states. Their support appears to be largely driven by an interest in creating jobs. Each proposed site is in an economically depressed area, and many in the local communities are understandably eager for an infusion of federal cash to generate new job opportunities.
But is this an effective way to create jobs?
Let’s talk about money. This would be an expensive project. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a new site would cost at least $3.6 billion to build and operate over the first five years. This includes ground equipment ($1.2 billion); developing the site, building the facilities, and constructing the silos ($1 billion); the cost of buying 20 interceptors ($1.3 billion), and operations costs ($100 million). For the full complement of 60 interceptors, it would cost at least $2.6 billion more.
Note, however, that the interceptors would not be built at the new sites, and neither the $1.3 billion for the first 20 interceptors nor money for extra interceptors would be spent locally. For example, Raytheon builds the GMD system’s kill vehicles in a facility outside Tucson, which it recently expanded to increase its capacity. The GMD interceptor’s boosters are also produced primarily in Arizona, at Orbital ATK’s facility outside of Phoenix.
So support for local industry and jobs for constituents may partially explain why Sen. John McCain, who usually provides a healthy dose of skepticism about defense expenditures, has endorsed the plan to build a third site.
Turning back to the potential sites in the Midwest, these above estimates indicate that under this plan, the Pentagon would spend at most about $2.3 billion in the local community. While that sounds enticing, studies show that military spending is not a particularly effective way to generate good paying jobs. Investing a comparable amount in clean energy technologies, health care or education is likely create a much larger number of jobs across all pay ranges than military spending.
The GMD site studies provided detailed information about what kinds of jobs would be created by building a new site. While it varies from site to site, the estimate is that construction, would generate 600 to 800 temporary jobs. A large fraction of those jobs, 15 to 50 percent, could be filled by workers from outside the region, depending on the skills of local residents.
After construction, the site would require an operations staff of 650 to 850 people. About 85 percent of the permanent staff jobs would be filled by workers from elsewhere due to the fact these positions demand specialized expertise.
The facility would indirectly generate a larger number of jobs, mainly low-to-median wage service jobs spurred by the economic activity. During construction, estimates range from 1,800 to 2,300 indirect jobs, while after the facility is completed, an estimated 300 to 400 indirect jobs would remain.
How does that compare to other types of investment?
Investing in wind projects would be a good bet—and both Michigan and New York are among the top 20 states for wind energy potential. As I noted a few years ago, a 2008 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which looked at the economic impact of building wind turbines in Colorado, estimated that developing 1,000 megawatts of wind-generated power would create 1,700 full-time equivalent jobs (including engineering and manufacturing jobs), and operation and maintenance would provide 300 permanent jobs in rural areas. In a 2013 report, Lawrence Livermore Laboratories calculated an average cost of building wind power to be $1,940 per kilowatt (and this cost is dropping). So these wind industry jobs would cost an initial outlay of around $2 billion, comparable to the investment in a third GMD site, and would continue to provide a return on investment.
For roughly the same amount of money, Hemlock Semiconductor, in Saginaw County, Michigan created 1,000 new jobs, spending $2.5 billion over five years on manufacturing facilities that produce materials for solar panels.
Building a third GMD missile defense site isn’t the result of a considered study of priorities to strengthen U.S. security, nor is it a sensible next step to improve strategic missile defense capabilities. It is symptomatic of a broader problem with strategic missile defense: Congress is not providing adequate oversight nor the necessary skepticism.
Regardless, we expect Congress to continue to push for a new site anyway once a preferred site is selected. However, if Congress has an extra few billion dollars available for one of these locations, it is fair to ask that it be spent in a way that provides economic security for the chosen community and a much better return on investment.