US missile plans boost for NATO-Russia ties
Brussels -- The prospect of the United States shelving plans to extend its missile defence shield into Europe will ease NATO ties with Russia, with the allies desperate for Moscow's help in Afghanistan.
The shield extension, with its missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, would have sat virtually in Russia’s backyard, and Moscow even threatened to set up missiles of its own to counter the system.
But in a dramatic foreign policy shift that delighted Russia and angered US allies in the region in equal measure, the Pentagon said Thursday a new more flexible system was required because the nature of the Iranian threat had changed.
While welcoming the "positive decision" by the United States, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told AFP that Washington surely had its own "political, military, technical and financial motives" for dropping the plans.
According to analyst Joseph Henrotin at the Paris-based Centre for International Risk Assessment: "The main reason is of a technical-budgetary nature and not any desire to please the Russians."
He put it down to "recurring doubts in some US military circles about the real effectiveness of these missiles and their costs at a time of (economic) crisis."
Some six months ago, US President Barack Obama announced a review of the missile defence project initiated under his predecessor George W. Bush, to see whether the multi-billion dollar system would be cost effective and technically feasible.
Unveiling a new approach Thursday, Obama said it would "provide stronger, smarter and swifter defences of American forces and America’s allies."
However he added, "Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile programme and that continues to be our focus and basis of the programme that we’re announcing today."
And Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Washington was still aiming to deploy a missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2015, even though Iran’s long-range missile development was slower than thought.
Whatever the reasons behind abandoning a plan that irritated Moscow — as well as allies like Germany — the move comes on the eve of a major speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on ties with Russia.
"We need a new beginning to build confidence and trust between NATO and Russia," Rasmussen said in an Internet video blog Wednesday.
"In the near future I will put forward concrete proposals on how I envision we can move ahead to accomplish that," he said. Officials say privately that those proposals could come in his speech in Brussels on Friday.
A key area of cooperation will be Afghanistan, which Soviet forces were forced to leave in 1989 and where NATO and its partners are struggling to combat a virulent Taliban-led insurgency.
Troop casualties have climbed as the allies stepped up military operations and the tide of public opinion has begun to turn against NATO’s biggest and most ambitious enterprise ever.
Yet the possibility that terrorism might flourish is of great concern to Russia.
"Building a stable and secure country is in NATO’s and Russia’s common interest," Rasmussen said. "We can do more together."
NATO’s troubles in Afghanistan have not gone unnoticed in Moscow.
"Afghanistan has shown the limits of the alliance’s resources," Rogozin said in the European Voice newspaper this week.
"NATO cannot simply give up its UN mandate and leave a broken pot behind it," he said. "We therefore want to know what the alliance is planning and poised to do in Afghanistan."
Turning to the future, he said: "The areas of mutual interest between Russia and NATO are very broad and the potential for cooperation is significant."
In return for dropping its plans, the United States will want cooperation on Iran.
"It is clear that the United States expects positive benefits on the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile dossier in exchange for this gesture towards Russia," Henrotin said.
The complicated US missile defence system that would have been
The United States’ planned missile shield in Europe was to use interceptor missiles to extend US defences against long-range ballistic missiles to the eastern edges of Europe.
The European sites, designed to counter an emerging ballistic missile threat from Iran, would have consisted of 10 interceptor missiles based in Poland, and a powerful targeting radar known as X-band radar in the Czech Republic.
Those sites would have been part of a more extensive US system that until now has been centred in Alaska and California and designed to provide a limited defence against a North Korean long-range missile attack.
The system would have relied on a complex network of satellite sensors and ground- and sea-based radars to detect and track launches of long-range missiles.
A command centre in Colorado Springs, Colorado, would have integrated missile launch and trajectory data to cue interceptor missiles and guide them into a collision in space with an incoming warhead.
The system currently consists of 21 interceptor missiles in Alaska and three interceptor missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
A network of early warning satellites provides the first alert of a launch, which is then picked up by a variety of radars.
These include tracking radars aboard Aegis warships, a forward-deployed X-band radar in Japan, a huge X-band radar on a floating platform in the Pacific, and upgraded early warning radars in Alaska and California.
Upgraded early warning radars in Thule, Greenland, and Fylingdales, United Kingdom also were to be integrated into the system.
Pentagon officials had said that the X-band radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland would extend the system’s coverage to most of Europe for the first time.
They said the sites in the Czech Republic and Poland were selected because they are optimal for defending against a missile attack from Iran.
Russia vehemently opposes the system on grounds that it could be turned against its nuclear arsenal, but US officials deny that.
If construction had begun in 2009, the European site would have been ready for operations between 2011 and 2013.