Obstacles ahead for missile defense

A US missile-defense system in Eastern Europe remains a distant prospect despite its high profile in US-Russia talks.

– You'd think deployment of US missile defenses in Europe was imminent, given the way Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin sparred over the subject at last week's "Lobster Summit" in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Despite the goodwill generated by speedboat rides and swordfish dinners, Mr. Putin vehemently objected during the two-day meeting to US plans to push forward with antimissile sites in the Czech Republic and Poland.

In fact, US missile defense faces a long and winding European road – and Russian opposition is far from its only hurdle. The US still must strike basing deals with the Czech and Polish governments. And in Washington the Democratic-controlled Congress appears reluctant to fund the move, scrambling its near-term prospects.

"I can see money trickling to the system to keep it on life support," says Wade Boese, director of research at the Arms Control Association. "I don't think you're going to see something that is full-bore ahead."

At issue are a radar facility in the Czech Republic and a battery of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland that the Bush administration says are needed to guard against a developing missile threat from Iran.

Russian officials have long complained about these plans, saying the system as designed seemed aimed against them. According to US experts, the Russian government appears to be motivated both by a genuine worry about the eventual effect of missile defense on its hard-won nuclear deterrent and by irritation that the US may be expanding its influence in Eastern Europe, once the Soviet backyard.

"The Russians appear to regard almost ... any Western engagement with that former Soviet space as somehow inimical to Russian interests," said Steven Pfeiffer, former US ambassador to Ukraine, at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies briefing on US-Russian relations.

In Maine, Putin among other things proposed to link the missile-defense system with Russian sites and to regionalize its control via joint missile launch early-warning centers.

But since then, Russian officials have continued to threaten consequences if US plans for defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic move forward. Sergei Ivanov, former Russian defense minister and current first deputy prime minister, on July 4 said the Kremlin might even deploy new missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost region, to counter US defenses at Eastern European bases. US officials don't dismiss these threats. But they do downplay them.

"While we have not bridged what are obvious differences on missile defense, I think there's a very constructive conversation going on now," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on July 5.

Of course, Russia is not the only nation with which the US is having such discussion. Talks with Polish and Czech officials are continuing, too.

But negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic may not wrap up until the end of the year – and after that, any government-to-government agreement will still have to be approved by the legislatures of those nations.

The US Missile Defense Agency has estimated that such ratification won't take place until 2009, notes the Senate Armed Services Committee in its report on this year's defense authorization bill. Construction and deployment could not begin before then.

And Congress may not be eager to allocate funds for the program before its geopolitical future is more assured. Generally speaking, the attitude of Democratic legislative leaders is "until they're ready, why should we be spending money on this project?" says Mr. Boese.

The House version of the fiscal 2008 defense bill, approved by the chamber last month, cuts out about half of the $310 million requested by the Bush administration for preparation of European missile-defense sites. The Senate version – which faces a full chamber vote this week – would reduce funding by some $85 million.

"The committee believes that construction and deployment activities are premature," says the Senate Armed Services report on its '08 legislation.

The two-stage interceptor that the US has proposed for European deployment has not yet been developed, and under current plans will not be flight-tested until 2010, according to the report.

Nor would the deployment of 10 interceptors protect all NATO European territory, says the report. And it's uncertain whether Iran will develop missiles capable of striking most of Europe, or nuclear warheads small enough to top them prior to 2015.

Pentagon officials say that they are trying to stay ahead of a developing threat – and that the West has misjudged its adversaries before.

The administration is trying to field a relatively rudimentary system, and then follow up with incremental improvements, say missile defense proponents. This "spiral development" process is essential to missile defense because it is a complicated system that must be built before it can be tested, they say.

"The Senate Armed Services Committee, however, has chosen to ignore this reality" by placing restrictions on the program, writes Baker Spring, a Heritage Foundation defense expert, in a recent analysis of the program.

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