WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense has no plans to develop an East Coast Missile Defense site — but if that changes, they’ll pick a military base in New York over Camp James A. Garfield near Ravenna, Defense officials told Congress.

In a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey late Wednesday, Under Secretary of Defense Michael D. Griffin wrote that Fort Drum, in upstate New York, “would be the preferred” continental interceptor site in the Eastern United States. Fort Drum, Griffin said, “provides the best operational coverage, but is likely the most expensive option with the most environmental challenges.”

But the selection was the equivalent of winning a beauty pageant without the sash and tiara, Griffin made clear.

Griffin wrote that since the Defense Department’s 2019 Missile Defense Review determined “there is no operational requirement for an East Coast” site, “the Department has no intent to develop one.”

“Should a requirement for an East Coast (site) emerge, the decision would be re-evaluated and additional analysis based on updated performance, the evolving threat, and the fact-of-life changes to the ballistic missile defense system would be accomplished,” he wrote.

District 13 Rep. Tim Ryan said he will continue to advocate for the base to be built in Ohio.

“The Under Secretary also stated that, ‘should a requirement for an East Coast CIS emerge, the decision would be re-evaluated,’” said Ryan in a statement. “In the meantime, I will continue to work with our local stakeholders to ensure that if and when a final decision is made, the incredible strengths of Ohio’s workforce, environmental advantages and established infrastructure are recognized.”

Vito Abuzzino, executive director of the Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission, agreed with Ryan. 

“Ohio and the region should not abandon this cause,” he stated, calling the letter from Michael D. Griffin to select committee members in Congress “highly qualified.”

“Competing communities would like nothing more than for northeast Ohio to throw in the towel after seeing this non-committal letter,” he continued. “That is ill-advised and shortsighted.”

Although disappointed by the lost economic development opportunity for Portage County and Northeast Ohio, Portage Development Board President Brad Ehrhart said Camp Garfield is still in the midst of a rebirth as a training center, having attracted about $39 million in investment.

“From my standpoint, we do have a really great thing going at Camp Garfield,” he said.

If Fort Drum is a better strategic location for the missile defense site, that’s where it should go, he added.

“I think the bottom line is, as Portage County and U.S. citizens, we want to make sure we win,” he said, adding that if “an extra minute” can be gained by locating the site at Fort Drum rather than Camp Garfield, the choice makes sense.

Ravenna Mayor Frank Seman said he believes Camp Garfield would have been a better choice for the missile defense site.

“I’m very disappointed; I think it’s a poor choice,” he said. “A lot of people put a lot of effort in trying to land it there. I am surprised by their decision.”

While Garfield isn’t like to to land the anti-missile base, Seman said he’s pleased there is activity at the camp.

“I think that’s going to end up being the premier place in the country for training of National Guard,” he said.

The selection is the culmination of a 2016 study that evaluated two potential interceptor sites; one at Camp Garfield, and one at Fort Drum for an East Coast Missile Defense site aimed at supplementing existing sites in Alaska and California.

The Ohio delegation fought to locate the site in Ohio, with lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Rocky River, mentioning it to President Donald Trump. The delegation, in letters to Defense officials arguing for the site, said it would bring 2,300 construction jobs and up to 850 full-time employees to northeast Ohio once the system was operational.

But critics said the cost was hard to overcome: It would take an estimated $3.6 billion to get a new site up and running, according to some estimates. Critics also said the Defense Department would be better served improving its existing missile defense system instead of adding a new site.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, who authored the legislation to establish the site, said that “now that site selection has occurred, we need to proceed to build out this site to protect our nation.”

“Although the Ohio congressional delegation worked incredibly hard to advocate to establish this site at Camp Garfield in Ravenna, from an operational perspective, DoD determined that Fort Drum in New York is a more strategic site to defend our country from missiles that may be aimed at us from the East,” the Dayton Republican said.

In a separate press release published by Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who represents Fort Drum, Turner praised Stefanik’s “impressive advocacy in securing the site in her district.”

“Her tireless work was critical in securing this huge win for her community,” he said, saying he has “no doubt” that Fort Drum is “well equipped to keep us safe from our adversaries.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he thought Camp Garfield was the “right place” for the site.

“It is strategically located, meets all the criteria, and most importantly has the highly-skilled, highly-educated workforce necessary to build this critically-important facility when it is needed,” he said.

He said while the Defense Department has “consistently said” they don’t plan to create a third missile defense site, “just last week they sent me a letter saying they had not made any decision on a preferred choice should it be necessary in the future.”

“DoD should explain its abrupt change and we will press them for answers,” he said. “I will continue to make the case to DoD that Camp Garfield is the best location.”

Record-Courier reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com or @bobgaetjens_rpc. Reporter Jessica Wehrman can be reached @jessicawehrman or jwehrman@dispatch.com.

This story was updated at 4:48 p.m.