WASHINGTON — A military base roughly 30 miles from the now-shuttered GM plant at Lordstown may encapsulate the region’s hope for something — anything — to help replace the thousands of jobs lost when GM left the region.
Regional leaders want that site — Camp James A. Garfield Joint Military Training Center near Ravenna — to be the home of America's next missile defense site, the only one on the eastern half of the continental U.S.
But the wait has been long and tedious. Ohio lawmakers had thought last year a decision was imminent and would be announced as part of the long-awaited Ballistic Missile Defense Review. But when the review came out in January, there was hardly a mention of the East Coast site.
Now officials hope that language in an earlier defense bill requiring the Defense Department to designate a preferred site within 60 days of publishing the Ballistic Missile Defense Review means an announcement is imminent.
No one, though, is sure. Last week, Ohio lawmakers sent a letter to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan urging the department to meet that 60-day deadline.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a Rocky River Republican, said he’s mentioned the issue to President Donald Trump multiple times. Trump, he said, “is definitely aware of it. And the thing with this president is if you make a strong economic argument, it’s going to get his attention.”
But even as Gonzalez and other Ohio lawmakers push for the site, the military must answer two fundamental questions: Should it place the site in Michigan, New York or in Ohio?
And, more important: Should it be built at all?
Camp Garfield, formerly the Ravenna Arsenal and Camp Ravenna, is competing with two other sites land the missile defense mission: Fort Custer Training Center near Battle Creek, Michigan, and in Fort Drum, New York, which is north of Syracuse.
All three sites say landing such a mission would be a boon. The Ohio delegation, in the March 26 letter to Shanahan, said it would bring 2,300 construction jobs and up to 850 full-time employees once the system is operational.
“Our feeling here is that it changes the economy as we know it for the better,” said Guy Coviello, vice president of government affairs for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce. “And that it would likely more than make up for the impact of the loss of General Motors.”
He said not only would the site support 850 full-time employees, it might support an additional number of engineers and scientists throughout Northeast Ohio. It might help secure the need for the nearby Youngstown Air Reserve Station, which, like many reserve stations, is always at risk.
But the hold-up is worrisome.
“I think the government officials owe it to the public, especially those in the three states that have sites, a decision,” Coviello said.
Even the prospect of developing a third site is controversial to some.
“This is entirely a congressional-driven idea and the Pentagon has never wanted it or supported it,” said Stephen Young, a senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is critical of the idea of a third site.
He said the likelihood of such a site ever being developed “is quite low, in part because the body that was pushing it most heavily was the House Armed Services Committee under Republican leadership. And now the Democrats are in charge.”
James McKeon, a policy analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the federal government would be better off making existing missile defense sites work better. He said the current program only tests at 50 percent, and that’s under “highly scripted conditions.”
And Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy for the Arms Control Association, said if the Missile Defense Agency truly wants the site, it would’ve mentioned it in its most recent Ballistic Missile Defense Review. Instead, he said, they punted, suggesting spending the money for a new site improving current capabilities.
“I don’t see a need for this particular site at this time,” he said.
Others argue a third site is long overdue.
Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a third site would serve as the equivalent of an insurance policy should the first attempts to shoot down an incoming missile fail. He calls it the “shoot-look-shoot” doctrine.
He argues a third site is necessary: While the U.S. has pursued some level of missile defense from North Korea for the past 20 years, the landscape has shifted and the country has tested two ICBMs recently. “A lot has changed,” he said.
But the challenge is cost: It would take an estimated $3.6 billion to get a new site up and running according to some estimates and the military is still wrestling with how best to defend the nation from incoming missiles.
“It’s understandable why they haven’t pulled the trigger on it,” he said.
Riki Ellison, founder and chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance argues that the breakdown of the most recent summit with North Korea should also spur the military to act, saying “at this point, there is a pretty good risk” both North Korea and Iran will continue to build up their ICBM capabilities.
“Once those missiles fly by Alaska, there’s nothing else to stop them if they overmatch it,” Ellison said.
But picking a site, he said, doesn’t necessarily mean things will happen immediately; Congress still has to spend the money to build up that site.
Until then, he worries, the nation will be at risk.
“The country needs it,” he said.
Contact Jessica Wehrman at email@example.com or @jessicawehrman