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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. is radically changing its plans for a missile defense shield along the former Iron Curtain countries of Poland and the Czech Republic, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday.
The decision signals a major break from a Bush-era defense goal — one that Gates himself proposed less than three years ago — of placing in Eastern Europe ground-based interceptor missiles and fixed radar capable of peering deep into Russia and shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles from Iran.
Instead, the president, secretary and the chief military advisor for missile defense, Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, said a new “architecture” of short- and medium-range missiles, supported by mobile radar platforms, would allow protection to arrive faster and with “greater flexibility”. The system would cost less and could be integrated into existing systems of allied countries.
“To put it simply, our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies,” Obama said.
The president and his defense advisors said updated intelligence determined the greater and more immediate threat from Iran and North Korea would come via short- and medium-range missiles, such as Iran’s Shahab-3, which has an 800-mile range. They also professed confidence in recent improvements in U.S. land- and sea-based interceptor missiles and radar abilities.
Overnight, reports surfaced that Obama had called the interim Czech prime minister, Jan Fischer, late Wednesday with the news. According to The Associated Press, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the U.S. decision was “a positive step.”
But by the time the president spoke, critics were piling on.
Sen. John McCain, on Twitter, called Obama’s decision a “reversal of our commitment to our allies and a victory for Putin.”
“Given the serious and growing threats posed by Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, now is the time when we should look to strengthen our defenses, and those of our allies,” he said in a statement released Thursday morning. “I believe the decision to abandon it unilaterally is seriously misguided.”
From Poland, an unnamed spokeswoman for the Polish Ministry of Defense said, “This is catastrophic for Poland,” CNN reported Thursday morning.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., co-chair of the Missile Defense Caucus, said, “There’s been a history of underestimating Iran’s intentions and capabilities. I don’t feel so confident about their recent intelligence that I feel we should scrap existing plans that are well under way, especially when it undermines relations with key allies.”
Gates, an expert in Russian history, said, “Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing. ... I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies, and eventually for our homeland than the program I recommended almost three years ago.”
Gates said his decision was based “almost exclusively” on intelligence and new technology capabilities — not the politics of repairing relations with Russia.
However, Gates and Cartwright laid out several reasons why Russia should feel less threatened by their new idea. For one, the new system would place directional radar in the southern Caucasus facing Iran, instead of the fixed, 360-degree radar in Poland that would have been able to peer deep beyond Moscow. Additionally, Russia has feared — erroneously, Gates said — that the U.S. could have attached a nuclear warhead to the larger ground-based interceptors originally planned for Poland.
The initiative “was clearly counterproductive” in getting Russia to help pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions, according to Dr. Dana Allin, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic affairs at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“There’s endless debate about what kind of agreement there was at the end of the Cold War, but there was clearly an understanding on the part of the Russians that the U.S. wouldn’t start studding its new borders with military facilities,” Allin said.
Obama visited Moscow in July and has signaled he intends to seek what could be the most ambitious nuclear arsenal reduction talks in more than 15 years. He said his decision followed a Congressionally directed review of missile defense and the unanimous recommendations of Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The president also said the plan aligns with NATO’s missile defense programs, assuring Polish and Czech leaders, that per the NATO alliance, “an attack on one is an attack on all.”
At the Pentagon, Cartwright laid out a planned network of deployed Patriot missiles, which defend immediate locations, such as buildings, SM-3 missiles, which defend larger areas, and high-altitude, long-range THAAD missiles. The system would deploy in phases beginning with Patriots, which many countries have purchased on their own already, followed by upgraded SM-3s coming in 2015 and a larger SM-3 coming three years later that could protect all of Europe from just three locations.
The plans allows the U.S. and its allies to deploy as much or little as needed, as future threats are determined.
Cost is another factor, Cartwright said. Patriots cost $3 million each, while the advanced SM-3 costs up to $10 million each. By contrast, each ground-based interceptors runs $70 million.
Stripes reporter Geoff Ziezulewicz contributed to this report.