The Obama administration has announced that it is abandoning a key part of its European missile defence plan - an interceptor that had been strongly opposed by Russia. It cited development problems and a lack of money.
The cancellation of the interceptors, which were to be deployed in Poland and possibly Romania early next decade, offers a potential opening for new arms control talks. Russian officials suspect the interceptors were a counter to their missiles and had indicated that they would not consider further nuclear arms cuts unless their concerns were resolved.
Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel announced the cancellation on Friday as part of an overall restructuring of the missile defence plans aimed at stopping missiles from North Korea and Iran. He made no reference to Russia’s objections to the European plans in his announcement. He said that other parts of the missile defence plans in Europe would move forward and that the U.S. commitment to missile defence in Europe “remains ironclad.”
The restructuring includes spending $1 billion to add 14 new interceptors to the 26 that are in underground silos in Alaska to counter the threat from North Korea.
The shift in U.S. missile defence plans in Europe the second major change to the program since Obama has been in the White House could spark unease among some U.S. allies, including Poland and Romania, who see the system as a sign of U.S. engagement in the region and a counterweight to Russia.
Missile defence has been a contentious issue since President George W. Bush sought to base long-range interceptors in central Europe to stop Iranian missiles from reaching the U.S. Russia believed the program was aimed at countering its own missiles and undermining its nuclear deterrent.
Mr. Obama reworked the Bush administration’s plan soon after taking office in 2009, cancelling an earlier interceptor planned for Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, and replacing the high-speed interceptors with slower ones that could stop Iran’s medium-range missiles.
Russia initially welcomed the changes to the Bush plan, and relations between the two powers improved. This, in turn, paved the way for the New Start Treaty setting new limits on both countries’ nuclear arsenals.
But Moscow has since ramped up its criticism of Mr. Obama’s revisions, which are backed by NATO claiming that the fourth and last planned upgrade of the interceptors would be able to stop its intercontinental missiles launched at the U.S., and undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent.
Whether or not it was intended to, the decision to cancel plans for the long—range interceptors will help the President’s arms control goals. A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Poland and Romania were informed of the decision ahead of the announcement, but Russia was not.
“Cancelling phase 4 opens the door to another round of US-Russian nuclear arms reductions,” said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association. “We give up nothing since phase 4 was not panning out anyway. This is a win-win for the United States.”