U.S. Is Proposing European Shield for Iran Missiles


Published: May 22, 2006

WASHINGTON, May 21 — The Bush administration is moving to establish a new antimissile site in Europe that would be designed to stop attacks by Iran against the United States and its European allies.

The administration's proposal, which comes amid rising concerns about Iran's suspected program to develop nuclear weapons, calls for installing 10 antimissile interceptors at a European site by 2011. Poland and the Czech Republic are among the nations under consideration.

A recommendation on a European site is expected to be made this summer to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Pentagon officials say. The Pentagon has asked Congress for $56 million to begin initial work on the long-envisioned antimissile site, a request that has run into some opposition in Congress. The final cost, including the interceptors themselves, is estimated at $1.6 billion.

The establishment of an antimissile base in Eastern Europe would have enormous political implications. The deployment of interceptors in Poland, for example, would create the first permanent American military presence on that nation's soil and further solidify the close ties between the defense establishments of the two nations.

While the plan has been described in Congressional testimony and in published reports, it has received relatively little attention in the United States. But it is a subject of lively discussion in Poland and has also prompted Russian charges that Washington's hidden agenda is to expand the American presence in the former Warsaw Pact nation.

Gen. Yuri N. Baluyevsky, the chief of the Russian military's general staff, has sought to stir up Polish opposition to the plan.

"What can we do?" General Baluyevsky told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in December. "Go ahead and build that shield. You have to think, though, what will fall on your heads afterward. I do not foresee a nuclear conflict between Russia and the West. We do not have such plans. However, it is understandable that countries that are part of such a shield increase their risk."

The proposed antimissile site is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of the United States missile defense program, which began with President Reagan's expansive vision of a space-based antimissile shield.

More than 20 years and billions of dollars later, the Bush administration is proceeding with a limited antimissile system, one that is no longer intended to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," as Mr. Reagan famously put it. Instead, it is designed to counter prospective dangers from nations like North Korea and Iran.

President Bush made the program a top priority soon after taking office and cleared the way for antimissile deployments by withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.

Nine interceptors have already been installed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of a broader, multilayered system planned by the Pentagon. An interceptor consists of a rocket that carries a 155-pound "kill vehicle," which is designed to seek out and collide with an enemy missile warhead. While the program is still being tested, the Pentagon says that the interceptors could be pressed into service in a crisis.

The program's numerous critics say it is behind schedule and not up to even this challenge. "It has been doing very poorly," said Philip Coyle, the former head of the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Pentagon. "They have not had a successful flight intercept test for four years."

Lieut. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, chief of the Missile Defense Agency at the Pentagon, said none of the technical problems have been show-stoppers. Several tests in which a target is to be intercepted are scheduled for this year and early next year.

The Pentagon is seeking $9.3 billion for its missile defense work for the 2007 fiscal year. About $2.4 billion is to go for fielding new systems and maintaining existing ones. The remainder is for additional development and testing.

Given the many technical challenges, the House Armed Services Committee has refused to approve the $56 million for the initial engineering work for the new antimissile field. The Senate Armed Services Committee, however, has supported the initiative, and the Pentagon is pressing Congress to approve the funds to install in Europe the same type of interceptors that are at Fort Greely.

As the debate continues over the technical capabilities of the system, the Pentagon has pushed to expand it. The Fort Greely and Vandenberg sites are primarily oriented against potential missile threats from North Korea.

"We have a limited capacity today, and it is certainly focused against the North Koreans initially," General Obering said in an interview. "We are worried about what is happening in the Middle East. We want to make sure that we have coverage from those approaches."

To improve the coverage against a potential Iranian threat, the Pentagon is upgrading a radar complex at Fylingdales, a British air base, and plans to begin similar work at the American Thule Air Base in Greenland. By building an antimissile base in Europe, the Pentagon is seeking to position the interceptors close to the projected flight path of Iranian missiles that would be aimed toward Europe or continue on a polar route to the United States.

General Obering said the system would complement any NATO efforts to develop an antimissile defense.

Iran does not have intercontinental-range missiles and has yet to conduct a flight test of a multistage rocket. There has been concern that Iran might develop the technology it needs to build such a weapon in the guise of a civilian space program. But some experts say it is a long way from developing such a system.

"As far as we can tell, Iran is many years away from having the capability to deliver a military strike against the U.S.," said Gary Samore, vice president of the MacArthur Foundation and a former aide at the National Security Council. "If they made a political decision to seriously pursue a space launch vehicle it would take them a decade or more to develop the capability to launch against the U.S."

Still, Iran has long seen ballistic missiles as an important weapon. Iran fired Scud missiles at Baghdad and Kirkuk during its war with Iraq and later embarked on an effort to secure additional missiles and missile technology from foreign suppliers, including North Korea. The Iranian Shahab-3, a liquid-fueled missile that is based on North Korea's No-dong missile, has the range to strike Israel, Turkey and other countries in the region.

Defense Department officials argue that Iran could collaborate with North Korea to speed up the development of long-range systems. Given the time it would take the United States to install an antimissile site in Europe, some officials said it was not too soon to begin work.

"Iran understands the use of ballistic missiles to change strategic geography," said a senior American Defense official who asked not to be identified because he did not want to be drawn into the public debate. "This is a long lead-time item. We would much rather be a couple of years early than a couple of years late."

In the meantime, the Bush administration has resumed its efforts to sound out support abroad. In early April, Pentagon and State Department officials visited Warsaw to renew discussions about the project, which has been talked about for years. American officials said the Polish government has been receptive.

"They asked us officially if we were still interested in discussing the issue," Poland's deputy foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said last month. "Of course we said yes and we are awaiting details." Poland's defense minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said recently that he has submitted questions for the Pentagon to answer before formal talks could be convened. Mr. Sikorski, who declined to be interviewed for this article, met in Washington with Mr. Rumsfeld last week to discuss an array of security issues.

In an effort to build support for the potential project, American diplomats in Warsaw have been meeting with opposition parties to keep them informed on the process of picking a site. According to a Polish press report, the Boeing Company, the prime contractor for the program, has made it clear that it would use Polish subcontractors. A Boeing spokesman declined to comment on the report.

The Czech Republic has sought to avoid public discussion of the project, fearing that it could become an issue in June parliamentary elections. As a result, American officials have refrained from talking openly about a potential site on Czech territory. But it remains an option that both sides intend to discuss privately, said an American official, who was granted anonymity because of the confidentiality of the discussions.

The United States already has a very close military relationship with Eastern European nations. The United States Army rehearsed helicopter attacks in Poland before the invasion of Iraq, and Poland later sent troops to Iraq. Exiled Iraqi fighters opposed to Saddam Hussein were trained in Hungary. Poland and the Czech Republic, along with eight other East European nations, are NATO members.

With the political fortunes of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain in decline and controversy at home over his decision to join the American invasion of Iraq, there is no serious discussion about installing antimissile interceptors in Britain, the American official said.

The installation of 10 interceptors in Eastern Europe would have no significant ability to defend against Russia's sizable nuclear arsenal. American officials say that the Bush administration sought to assure the Russians that the system is not aimed at Moscow by keeping it informed about the recent visit by American officials to Warsaw. But the Russians are unhappy with the idea and have portrayed it as a step that would jeopardize cooperation between NATO and Russia, including on antimissile systems.

The development of an antimissile site in Poland would have a "negative impact on the whole Euro-Atlantic security system," Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, told a Belarus newspaper. "The choice of location for the deployment of those systems is dubious, to put it mildly."