Eastern European Nuclear-Missile Shield

The Wall Street Journal, 17th september 2009 - U.S. Changes Course on Eastern European Nuclear-Missile Shield


WASHINGTON -- The White House is scrapping a Bush-era plan for an Eastern European missile-defense shield, saying a redesigned defensive system would be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.

"After an extensive process, I have approved the unanimous recommendations of my secretary of defense and my joint chiefs of staff to strengthen America's defenses against ballistic-missile attack," President Barack Obama said in an announcement Thursday morning.

The previous administration's plans will be changed, moving away from the installation of a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland in the near future. A second phase to begin in 2015 could result in missiles being placed on land in Eastern Europe.

A Polish woman protested against a request by the U.S. to place a missile defense base in Warsaw, Poland, in March 2007.

"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Mr. Obama said. "It is more comprehensive than the previous program, it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the decision to abandon the Bush administration's plans came about because of a change in the U.S. perception of the threat posed by Iran.

Mr. Gates said intelligence experts concluded the short- and medium-range missiles were "developing more rapidly than previously projected" in Iran. The findings are a major reversal from the Bush administration, which pushed aggressively to begin construction of the Eastern European system before leaving office in January.

The Bush administration proposed the European-based system to counter the perceived threat of Iran's developing a nuclear weapon that could be placed atop its increasingly sophisticated missiles. There is widespread disagreement over the progress of Iran's nuclear program toward developing such a weapon, but miniaturizing nuclear weapons for use on long-range missiles is one of the most difficult technological hurdles for an aspiring nuclear nation.

The White house confirmed that it will ditch Bush plans to erect a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move likely to mean greater cooperation with Russia. WSJ's National Security Correspondent Peter Spiegel reports.

The Bush plan infuriated the Kremlin, which argued the system was a potential threat to its own intercontinental ballistic missiles. U.S. officials repeatedly insisted the location and limited scale of the system -- a radar site in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland -- posed no threat to Russian strategic arms.

The Obama administration's assessment concludes that U.S. allies in Europe, including NATO members, face a more immediate threat from Iran's short- and medium-range missiles and is ordering a shift toward the development of regional missile defenses for the Continent, according to people familiar with the matter. Such systems would be far less controversial.

Russia on Thursday welcomed the news but said it saw no reason to offer concessions in return. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the plan a "responsible move." He threatened last year to station tactical Iskander missiles on Poland's border if the U.S. system was deployed.

"We appreciate this responsible move by the U.S. president toward realizing our agreement,'' Mr. Medvedev said Thursday. "I am prepared to continue the dialogue."

Jan Fischer, the Czech Republic interim prime minister, said he got a phone call from Mr. Obama just after midnight Thursday about the plans.

The Polish government doesn't plan to make an immediate statement on its Thursday meeting with U.S. officials on the missile shield, Foreign Ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski said.

"The Bush plans on the missile defense as we knew them until now were nothing more than a provocation of security in the European region," said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in a phone interview.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the U.S. decision is a positive step and would improve the involvement of all NATO nations. Mr. Fogh Rasmussen said he had talks with the U.S. top envoy to the alliance on Thursday morning, adding the full alliance would be debriefed later in the day.

Critics of the shift are bound to view it as a gesture to win Russian cooperation with U.S.-led efforts to seek new economic sanctions on Iran if Tehran doesn't abandon its nuclear program. Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has opposed efforts to impose fresh sanctions on Tehran.

Security Council members, which include the U.S. and Russia, will meet with Iranian negotiators on Oct. 1 to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

Current and former U.S. officials briefed on the assessment's findings said the administration was expected to leave open the option of restarting the Polish and Czech system if Iran makes advances in its long-range missiles in the future.

The decision to shelve the defense system is all but certain to raise alarms in Eastern Europe, where officials have expressed concerns that the White House's effort to "reset" relations with Moscow would come at the expense of American allies in the former Soviet bloc. "The Poles are nervous," said a senior U.S. military official.

Earlier, a Polish official said his government wouldn't "speculate" on administration decisions regarding missile defense but said "we expect the U.S. will abide by its commitments" to cooperate with Poland militarily in areas beyond the missile-defense program.

Still, the decision is likely to be seen in Russia as a victory for the Kremlin. Mr. Medvedev will meet with Mr. Obama at next week's meetings of the U.N. General Assembly and Group of 20 industrialized and developing nations.

Although a center-right government in Prague supported the Bush missile-defense plan when it was first proposed, the Czech Republic is now run by a caretaker government. A Czech official said his government was concerned an announcement by the White House on the missile-defense program could influence coming elections and has urged a delay. But the Obama administration has decided to keep to its original timetable.

European analysts said the administration would be forced to work hard to convince both sides the decision wasn't made to curry favor with Moscow and, instead, relied only on the program's technical merits and analysis of Iran's missile capabilities.

"There are two audiences: the Russians and the various European countries," said Sarah Mendelson, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The task is: How do they cut through the conspiracy theories in Moscow?"

The Obama administration has been careful to characterize its review as a technical assessment of the threat posed by the Iranian regime, as well as the costs and capabilities of a ground-based antimissile system to complement the two already operating in Alaska and central California. Those West Coast sites are meant to defend against North Korean missiles.

The administration has also debated offering Poland and the Czech Republic alternative programs to reassure the two NATO members that the U.S. remains committed to their defense.

Poland, in particular, has lobbied the White House to deploy Patriot missile batteries -- the U.S. Army's primary battlefield missile-defense system -- manned by American troops as an alternative.

Although Polish officials supported the Bush plan, U.S. officials said they had indicated their primary desire was getting U.S. military personnel on Polish soil. Gen. Carter Hamm, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said Washington has begun talks with Polish officials about starting to rotate Europe-based American Patriot units into Poland for month-long training tours as a first step toward a more permanent presence.

"My position has been: Let's get started as soon as we can with the training rotations, while the longer-term stationing...is decided between the two governments," Gen. Hamm said in an interview.

For several years, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency has been pushing for breaking ground in Poland and the Czech Republic, arguing that construction must begin so the system would be in place to counter Tehran's emerging long-range-missile program, which intelligence assessments determined would produce an effective rocket by about 2015.

But in recent months, several prominent experts have questioned that timetable. A study by Russian and U.S. scientists published in May by the East-West Institute, an international think tank, played down the progress of Iran's long-range-missile program. In addition, Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an expert in missile defense and space-based weapons, said in a speech last month that long-range capabilities of both Iran and North Korea "are not there yet."

"We believed that the emergence of the intercontinental ballistic missile would come much faster than it did," Gen. Cartwright said. "The reality is, it has not come as fast as we thought it would come."

It is not an assessment that is shared universally. Eric Edelman, who oversaw missile-defense issues at the Pentagon as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration, said intelligence reports he reviewed were more troubling.

"Maybe something really dramatic changed between Jan. 16 and now in terms of what the Iranians are doing with their missile system, but I don't think so," Mr. Edelman said, referring to his last day in office.

There is far more consensus on Iran's ability to develop its short- and medium-range missiles, and the administration review is expected to recommend a shift in focus toward European defenses against those threats. Such a program would be developed closely with NATO.

Marc Champion in Moscow and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Write to Peter Spiegel at peter.spiegel(at)wsj.com