US mission: missile defense base in Europe

A team of missile experts from the Department of Defense arrives in the Czech Republic Tuesday to scout out possible sites.

At the heart of a 64,268-acre military zone here bordering this small town, Vladimir stops his car and points to a ridgeline of fir and pine.

From there, says the retired army officer who would give only his first name, the Czech Army fires rounds of tank shells during military exercises. He traces the arc of those volleys that meet imaginary targets somewhere in the distant scruff.

But the scope of projectiles launched from these lowland woods could greatly increase if a US delegation of missile experts arriving Tuesday likes what they see here in Jince (pronounced YIN-tseh), a small town just southwest of the Czech Republic's capital, Prague.

This military zone is one of at least three that the team from the US Department of Defense will scout when they arrive in the country Tuesday for a week-long visit to identify potential sites for a US missile defense base.

"I don't wish for the base to be here," says Petr Smola, a military police officer stationed at the edge of the zone. "First we had the Russians here, and now the Americans will be here."

Mr. Smola echoes the concerns of many Czechs, for whom the idea of a missile base brings back troubling memories of the Soviet occupation, when missile silos were a common fixture in the countryside and troops carried out military exercises in zones like Jince.

Czech politicians, struggling to overcome a parliamentary deadlock after a general election last month, are split on the issue. But defense experts agree that a missile defense base somewhere in Central Europe makes good strategic sense for the United States and Europe amid growing tensions between Western governments and Iran and North Korea.

"Because of Iran and North Korea, the United States was bound to start exploring its options in Poland, the Czech Republic, in Britain even," says Daniel Keohane, a defense expert at the Center for European Reform in London.

The Americans are reportedly considering sites in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, and are expected to approach one of these governments with a proposal by the fall.

Such a base, which would be the first foreign site in the US missile defense program, would be equipped to track and, if necessary, defend against intercontinental missiles launched from countries to the east such as Iran.

In Europe, regional missile defense has not been a major agenda topic since Sept. 11, 2001, when counterterrorism became a higher priority. That's going to change, say experts like Mr. Keohane: NATO is expected to release a new report on trans-Atlantic missile defense during its summit in Riga, Latvia in November.

European governments, Keohane says, "will want convincing that [a missile defense base] can work, but they will want to be involved. They'll want to explore their options as much as possible. This is an exploratory time for this issue."

Currently two bases – one in Alaska, one in California – make up the US missile defense shield. The shield has been controversial for years, with detractors saying its technologies remain unproven and that the end of the cold war made such a defense weapon unnecessary. But missile defense has resurfaced under President Bush, who earmarked $9.3 billion for missile defense in the government's 2007 budget – $118 million of which is slated for a base in Central Europe, according to recent Czech press reports that sourced the Missile Defense Agency.

Washington and the Czech government have been talking for at least two years, according to the Czech Defense Ministry, which is hosting the US visit.

It has said that the American team will include about 20 experts from the Department of Defense and will visit sites in Jince, Boletice, and Libava, to study geographical, hydrological, and weather conditions at the sites. A team made a similar visit to Poland last month and is expected to visit Hungary at a later date.

"They want to see the terrain for themselves ... They also want to find out if there is enough of an available labor force in the area," says Jan Pejsek, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

An official with the Missile Defense Agency could not be reached for comment. Jan Krc, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Prague, confirmed the visit and said that an American decision on the base is expected in the next two months.

If the US requests to build a base in the Czech Republic, the government will decide whether to accept the proposal. Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, who may soon be forced out by a new coalition government, has called for a nationwide referendum before any government decision is taken, a position not held by other leaders struggling to reshape parliament.

But calls for a referendum are loud here in Jince, a rural community mainly inhabited by people old enough to remember the Soviet era.

Those years made Czechs particularly leery of a military presence from any outsider, and that history could be a major obstacle for the US, if it ends up asking to build a base here. "A referendum is very important," says local pensioner Miroslav Rajtl. "Russia used to be the police state. But now it seems that the Americans can be the ones, and I don't like that."

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