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Defense pick

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Last week as the nation prepared to celebrate Christmas while facing the fiscal cliff, the president began to fill the cabinet for his second term. After he nominated Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, speculation focused on the possible nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as secretary of defense.

The appointment of Mr. Hagel would be distressing for the north country. His record in the Senate is not reassuring about defense matters. Particularly concerning is his opposition to missile defense systems, which will play a more prominent role in national defense as more and more nations develop missile weapon delivery capability. Just this month, North Korea successfully launched a missile capable of carrying weapons. Unfortunately, North Korea’s priorities do not match those of the world’s peaceful nations. Missile delivery systems continue to threaten to upend the Middle East, forcing Israel to defend its borders with anti-missile systems.

The north country has played an important role in the nation’s defense from missile attack. In the 1950s, the Air Force operated a radar base on Watertown’s south side where the Dry Hill prison is located today. The radar dome was a landmark in the north country for years, and the Air Force personnel assigned there kept that technology operating to watch for missile attacks from Russia.

Technology changed, the threat from Russia subsided, and Dry Hill’s radar station was closed. After years of being ignored as part of a missile defense system, the next federal budget contains a $25 million investment at Fort Drum for a missile defense data terminal complex. The bill also calls for the Department of Defense to complete an environmental assessment for sites that could house ground-based interceptor missiles.

This investment in Fort Drum is in keeping with our heritage and helps keeps the north country a key element in the nation’s defense. Thus it is unsettling that the next secretary of defense may be Mr. Hagel with his negative views on using missile technology to defend our borders.

However, concern over the potential appointment of Mr. Hagel was moderated when Rep. William L. Owens established his support of placing interceptor missiles at Drum. Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, had been examining whether the missiles would be compatible with Drum’s mission. He has concluded they would fit in at Drum. His support could not come at a better time.

Such an investment at Fort Drum would bring new levels of advanced technology to the north country along with the need for support staff to maintain the sophisticated command and control systems.

With Mr. Owens’s support, the next investment at Drum to strengthen America will have an advocate as the Department of Defense debates with Mr. Hagel over the wisdom of missiles and defense.

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