U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday shelved a Bush-era plan for an Eastern European missile defence plan that has been a major irritant in U.S. relations with Russia. He said a redesigned defensive system would be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.
“Our new missile defence architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defences of American forces and America’s allies,” said Mr. Obama in an announcement from the White House. “It is more comprehensive than the previous programme; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland.”
The missile defence system, planned under the Bush administration, was to have been built in the Czech Republic and Poland. Mr. Obama phoned Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer on Wednesday night and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Thursday to alert them of his decision.
Mr. Obama said the plan was scrapped in part because, after a review, the U.S. has concluded that Iran was less focused on developing the kind of long-range missiles for which the system was originally developed, making the building of an expensive new shield unnecessary. New technology also had arisen that military advisers decided could be deployed sooner and more effectively, he said.
Anticipating certain criticism from the right that he was weakening U.S. security, Mr. Obama said repeatedly that this decision would provide more — not less — protection.
“I’m committed to deploying strong missile defence systems that are adaptable to the threats of the 21st century,” said the President.
He said the U.S. would continue to work cooperatively with what he called “our close friends and allies” — the Czech Republic and Poland, which had agreed to host the Bush-planned shield at considerable cost in public opinion and their relations with Russia.
He also made a pointed reference to Russia and its long and heated objections to the shield. “Its concerns about our previous missile defence programmes were entirely unfounded,” said Mr. Obama.
Still, the decision could — and mostly likely will — be read as at least in part as an effort to placate Russia at a time when its support against Iran’s suspected nuclear programme has not been forthcoming and is sorely needed.
But later Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. still aimed to deploy missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2015, even though Iran’s long-range missile programme was further off than thought. “We now have the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors in northern and southern Europe that near term can provide missile defence coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others,” Mr. Gates told a press conference.
“Consultations have begun with allies, staring with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 and other components of the system,” said Mr. Gates. “The second phase about 2015 will involve fielding upgraded land based SM-3s about hosting a land based version and other components of the system.”
And he argued: “Although the Iranian long range missile threat is not as immediate as we previously thought, this system will allow us to incorporate future defence capabilities against such threats as they develop.”