Spectators at Vandenberg Air Force Base observe a missile test in January. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press)

The nation’s missile-defense system has serious flaws. So why is the Pentagon moving to expand it?

Despite a spotty test record, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system has kept its funding and is poised to grow. A key reason: Rust Belt jobs.

Spectators at Vandenberg Air Force Base observe a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system in January. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press)

Mayor Scott Burto recalls the days of good-paying jobs, plenty of them, at the paper mills along the Black River here in the bucolic reaches of northern New York state.

Today, the mills and the jobs are nearly all gone, casualties of foreign competition. But hope for a new boom is teasing the locals, and it has nothing to do with paper. The nation’s troubled but well-funded homeland missile defense program just might be the region’s salvation.

Nearby Ft. Drum is one of three sites under consideration for an installation of anti-missile interceptors — the latest phase of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD. Construction is expected to cost as much as $4 billion, potentially generating thousands of jobs directly and indirectly.

“The big positive is the effect it will have on our economy — on jobs,” said Burto, 41, a grants administrator who is in his 13th year as mayor. “Locally, there’s a large amount of support for it. Our job growth is behind the rest of the state.”

Mayor Scott Burto of West Carthage, N.Y., hopes the Pentagon will choose nearby Ft. Drum for a new missile defense installation. His town needs the jobs, he said. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Ft. Drum sprawls across 107,000 acres east of Lake Ontario in the bucolic reaches of northern New York state. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The GMD system, which was declared operational in 2004, is designed to thwart a sneak nuclear attack by North Korea or Iran. It has performed poorly in test flights, failing to destroy mock enemy warheads about half the time — prompting many government and independent analysts to conclude that it cannot be relied on.

But in New York state and the two other areas under study — military facilities in Ohio and Michigan — the issue is not whether GMD works. The issue is jobs.

All three regions are competing furiously for the prize and the economic stimulus it would deliver. Members of Congress have formed rare bipartisan coalitions to press the case for their constituents. The spectacle shows how economic considerations, as much as strategic military ones, can keep money flowing to flawed defense programs.

GMD’s existing interceptors are at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Ft. Greely, Alaska. Pentagon officials say they intend to announce their preferred site for a third installation in early 2017. The Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress are expected to approve the expansion.

Senior military officials, including the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, have said they do not believe a new installation is necessary and that the money would be better spent improving the existing system, which has cost taxpayers more than $40 billion to date.

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Yet fear of what America’s adversaries might be up to has helped protect GMD. Another factor is the muscle wielded in Washington by major defense contractors, which have billions of dollars of revenue at stake.

Three of them — Boeing Co., Raytheon Co. and Northrop Grumman — donated a total of $40.5 million to congressional campaign funds from 2003 through October of this year, according to federal election records.

The economic desperation in Rust Belt areas of New York, Ohio and Michigan — discontent that helped power Donald Trump to the presidency — has also lent momentum to the push to expand the system.

California Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said GMD’s track record showed that the goal of intercepting and destroying long-range ballistic missiles in flight — a feat likened to hitting one speeding bullet with another — was impractical.

“I think the answer is absolutely clear: It will not work,” Garamendi said in an interview. “Nevertheless, the momentum of the fear, the momentum of the investments, the momentum of the industry — it carries forward.

“We represent the interests of our district. So if the district is building rockets that don’t work, and the jobs are at stake, what’s a representative to do?”

GMD is designed to shield the United States from a “limited” attack by a non-superpower such as North Korea or Iran. A total of 34 operational interceptors have been deployed — four at Vandenberg and 30 at Ft. Greely. The Obama administration has committed to increase the total to 44 by the end of 2017 by adding interceptors in Alaska.

The planned third site would initially house 20 interceptors and could accommodate as many as 60, according to the Missile Defense Agency.

The interceptors are three-stage rockets, each with a 5-foot-long “kill vehicle” at its tip. In the event of an attack, interceptors would rise from their underground silos and soar toward the upper atmosphere. The kill vehicle is designed to separate from its rocket in space, fly independently at 4 miles per second and crash into an enemy warhead.

North Korea is the only non-superpower known to be developing both nuclear weaponry and missiles that might someday be capable of striking the United States. So far this year, the regime has launched 14 test missiles, including two from submerged barges or submarines.

Some of the missiles failed to clear launch; others flew distances ranging from about 19 miles to 620 miles.

The strategic case for expanding GMD has rested largely on concern over Iran. House Republicans, notably Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, a member of the Armed Services Committee, have pushed for a third site to confront the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran could pose if it ever developed long-range missiles.

Questioned by Turner in congressional hearings, military officials have said that although the two existing GMD sites are intended to protect the entire U.S., a new installation in the eastern half of the country would provide more time, or “battle space,” to respond to an Iranian attack.

Iran is not known to have missiles capable of reaching North America, and last year it agreed to suspend until 2030 or later its development of fissile material for a nuclear weapon, in return for the lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations.

Pentagon skips tests on key component of U.S.-based missile defense system

The fate of the nuclear agreement is now uncertain. In March, then-candidate Trump said, “My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He has not addressed the issue publicly since he was elected.

Congressional proponents of expanding GMD — both Republicans and Democrats — have emphasized the economic benefits as well as the supposed strategic ones.

“A federal investment for missile interceptors in upstate New York could create thousands of jobs and significant revenue in local communities,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a May 6, 2013, news release. In an accompanying letter to then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Schumer said: “I urge you to strongly consider the state.”

This fall, Schumer and 22 members of New York state’s congressional delegation pressed their case. Putting the installation at Ft. Drum, the Democrats and Republicans wrote in a Sept. 30 letter to the missile agency’s director, could bring “up to 1,450 jobs and $220 million per year in total value added to the region.”

The three regions vying as finalists span some 600 miles of the Rust Belt, each bearing indelible scars from declines in manufacturing.

The upstate New York towns around Ft. Drum, which covers 107,000 acres east of Lake Ontario, have been shaken by the closures of the paper mills. In northeastern Ohio — home to Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center — the collapse of Big Steel and the tire industry remain deeply felt.

The paper mills and the jobs they supported in West Carthage, N.Y., are mostly gone. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As for the third finalist — southwestern Michigan’s Ft. Custer Training Center — poverty rates in the local counties range from 15% to 19%, according to Census Bureau data.

“When you talk about creating several hundred jobs — that can change a community,” said Joe Sobieralski, president and chief executive officer of Battle Creek Unlimited, a booster organization in Michigan.

Excitement over the possibility of a new missile site runs high in Ohio as well.

“The impact of the jobs to build it, to maintain it — I think it would be a tremendous boost for the area,” said Bruce Lange, one of three elected trustees in Charlestown Township, which borders Camp Ravenna.

James Eskridge, a Charlestown trustee for 25 years, said, “I’m not aware of any elected official in Ohio who’s not for it.”

For the last 70 years, America’s defense against all-out nuclear war has rested on “mutually assured destruction,” the Cold War doctrine that holds that none of the world’s major nuclear powers would launch a first strike against any of the others, for fear of a devastating counterattack.

The U.S. still relies on that doctrine to deter an attack by Russia or China.

U.S. missile defense system is ‘simply unable to protect the public,’ report says

GMD grew out of concern that a non-superpower adversary or a reckless “rogue state” might develop the ability to strike the U.S. The response: a system designed to shoot incoming warheads out of the sky.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration funded research into anti-missile interceptors, but declined to put a system into the field, saying more work was needed.

In 2002, however, President George W. Bush fulfilled a campaign pledge by ordering the Pentagon to deploy “an initial set of missile defense capabilities” — the system that became GMD — within two years.

To meet the deadline, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld exempted the Missile Defense Agency from the Pentagon’s standard procurement and testing rules. Government and independent analysts have traced the system’s technical deficiencies to the breakneck pace at which components were designed, produced and fielded.

In February, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, reported that GMD’s test record has been “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

In July, a report written for the Union of Concerned Scientists by a team of missile defense experts said the system is “simply unable to protect the U.S. public.”

Camp Ravenna in northeastern Ohio is one of three sites being considered for a new installation of anti-missile interceptors. All three regions are competing furiously for the site and the jobs it would generate. (Jeff Lange / For The Times)

National security considerations are remote from the day-to-day worries of people in the Ohio towns that surround Camp Ravenna.

In Windham, on Ravenna’s northern border, the town’s only grocery store, Sparkle Market, closed this year. So did Windham True Value Hardware on Main Street. Forty percent of the town’s 2,200 residents live below the poverty line, according to census data.

“It’s horrible,” Mayor Deborah Blewitt said in an interview. “We’ve looked around and we contacted a lot of people, and no one is interested in coming.”

Maruf Awad, a Palestinian immigrant who had operated Sparkle Market since 1982, said, “The community just shrank and couldn’t support the business.”

Blewitt, 63, remembers when Camp Ravenna was a magnet for thousands of workers and their families. It opened in 1942 to manufacture munitions for World War II and covers 21,400 acres, much of which still teems with deer, beavers, owls and other wildlife.

“My mother worked on the load line during the Vietnam War,” Blewitt said. Her father served at Ravenna as a lieutenant in the National Guard.

“Our community has been dying a little bit at a time,” she said. “So we’re hoping that the site is selected.”

In the nearby city of Ravenna, Mayor Frank Seman is also pinning his hopes on GMD.

“The number of jobs will be in the thousands,” predicted Seman, a courtly, retired middle school principal. “I just have a feeling — with the politics in the country and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s behavior — they’re going to build it.”

“I just have a feeling … they’re going to build it,” said Mayor Frank Seman of Ravenna, Ohio. A new missile defense battery at Camp Ravenna would bring thousands of jobs, he said. (Jeff Lange / For The Times)

The question is where. Elected officials in southwestern Michigan are fighting for Ft. Custer, a 7,000-acre compound between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.

Battle Creek Unlimited has paid lobbyists at the Roosevelt Group in Washington $320,000, as of October, to advance the region’s cause in Congress, federal records show. The booster group has also hired a Washington-based law firm, Aiken Gump, for advocacy work.

In late September, local business people packed a pair of briefings to hear about the sub-contracting opportunities a GMD site would generate. The briefings were sponsored by an aerospace industry trade group and were led by Battle Creek’s chief Washington lobbyist and representatives of Boeing, which manages GMD under contract with the Pentagon.

The region’s strategy for landing the site has been shaped in part by Dr. John J.H. “Joe” Schwarz, a former Battle Creek mayor, state senator and congressman who over the years helped fend off repeated attempts to decommission Ft. Custer.

Winning the site selection for GMD requires the same attention to detail, he said, and “would be a shot in the arm” for the region.

Dr. John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz of Battle Creek, Mich., a former mayor, state senator and congressman, is helping steer the effort to bring a new missile defense installation to Ft. Custer. (Sean Proctor / For The Times)

He’d get no argument from Bonnie Bogue, who manages a nine-hole golf course three miles east of Ft. Custer.

“This town could use it,” Bogue said on a quiet weekday afternoon, with not a customer in sight. “It would bring people, and people is money. I’m no expert at it, but to me, it’s a good idea.”

Contact the reporter. Follow David Willman on twitter @dwillmannews