The United Stated is abandoning a key part of its Eastern European missile defense plan due to development problems and funding, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has announced. The focus, he said, will be shifted to perceived threats from North Korea.
Interceptors in Poland and Romania, the deployment of which had been the source of heavy criticism from Moscow, will be scrapped.
Hagel told the press on Friday that the decision was made as part of an overall restructuring of the country’s missile defense plans, with an eye to stopping perceived threats from Iran and North Korea.
The restructuring of the program will see $1 billion shifted to add some 14 new interceptors to the 26 existing ones in Alaska designed to counter potential North Korea missiles.
Washington claims that its decision was prompted by a need to address North Korea’s faster-than-anticipated progress in nuclear weapons development. The changes to the program will free up the money to do so, Hagel said.
Explaining the rationale behind the initial plans for American outposts in Poland and Romania, Hagel said, “the purpose was to add to the protection of the US homeland already provided by our current [ground-based interceptors] against missile threats from the Middle East.”
But, he added, “The timeline for deploying this program had been delayed to at least 2022 due to cuts in Congressional funding. Meanwhile the threat matures. By shifting resources from this lagging program … We will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner, also providing additional protection against the North Korean threat.”
However, the Poland and Romania-based interceptors were only one component in a multifaceted missile defense program. While Phase 4 – the now-scrapped interceptors – are off the table, phases 1 through 3 are set to continue as planned.
“The missile deployments the United States are making in phases 1 through 3 of the European Phased Adaptive approach including sites in Poland and Romania will still be able to provide coverage of all European NATO territory as planned by 2018,” Hagel said.
The Kremlin has argued that deployment of the systems in its neighborhood was aimed at countering Russian missiles and undermining its nuclear deterrent, though Washington said the system was aimed at countering threats from Iran.
During initial negotiations with the George W. Bush administration, Moscow offered Washington the use of an alternative site in Azerbaijan in order to counter the Iranian threats evoked by the US.
The missile shield also faced strong domestic opposition in Poland and Romania, bringing the Obama administration in 2009 to announce that it was canceling its plans for the project.
But a reformulated scheme was announced a month later in October 2009, showing plans to place smaller, mobile SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors in the region by 2018.
Besides the placement of the interceptors, Russian officials have also opposed a radar installation set to be based in the Czech Republic. The base would enable US forces and their NATO partners to monitor activities in European Russian airspace.
Hagel stressed that other components of American missile defense plans in Europe would continue, and that Washington’s commitment in Europe “remains ironclad,” but made no reference to Kremlin objections to the program.
An anonymous senior State Department official told the AP that while Poland and Romania were informed of the decision ahead of the announcement, Russia was not.
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