U.S. drops missile defense shield in Eastern Europe

by Takehiko Kajita

The United States is abandoning plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe and replacing them with a new approach to antimissile defense, President Barack Obama said Thursday.

''Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies,'' he said in an announcement from the White House.

''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,'' Obama said.

The original missile defense plans, crafted under the administration of former President George W. Bush, was to have been built in the Czech Republic and Poland.

It had been a major source of tension between the United States and Russia in recent years. Moscow said the system would threaten its security. Washington insisted the plans were aimed solely at averting a potential attack from Iran and North Korea.

The change of gears in U.S. missile defense policy could quicken the pace of ongoing negotiations with Russia on a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expires Dec. 5. Both sides are seeking to complete the talks by the year's end.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama last year, condemned Obama for having made a ''seriously misguided'' decision.

McCain said Washington should not take steps backward in strengthening ties with Eastern European nations at a time when they are ''increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.''

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States will deploy Aegis ships equipped with interceptors to defend European allies and U.S. forces against more immediate threats as part of an overhauled missile shield program.

Gates, speaking from the Defense Department after Obama's announcement, said land-based missile defense systems will be stationed in a second phase beginning in about 2015.

''We have now the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors in northern and southern Europe that near term can provide missile defense coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others,'' he said.

''Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,'' Gates said.

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon is also looking to eventually deploy a land-based radar as part of the system that would ideally be built in the Caucasus.

In his announcement, Obama said the shift in U.S. missile defense policy is due to an ''updated intelligence assessment'' about Iran's ability to hit Europe with missiles.

''Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran's ballistic missile program and that continues to be our focus and basis of the program that we're announcing today,'' he said.

The president said Iran's ''short- and medium-range'' missiles pose the most current threat and that ''this new ballistic missile defense will best address'' that threat.

Gates said the United States is concerned about Iran stalling the West while it develops its nuclear program but there is still time for diplomacy.

''We are all concerned about Iran running out the clock on us on their nuclear program,'' the Pentagon chief said.

''And our view is there is still time for diplomacy and, I might say, sanctions to persuade the Iranians that their security will be diminished by going down the track of nuclear weapons,'' he said.

(Distributed by Kyodo News on Sept. 17, 2009)