Nations Slated to Host U.S. Missile System Skeptical

Opponents to U.S. plans to install a radar in the Czech Republic. i i

hide captionOpponents to U.S. plans to install a radar in the Czech Republic as part of a missile defense system gather signatures at a small protest in Pardubice, Czech Republic. A handful of opponents have been traveling around the country by bus, gathering signatures in an attempt to force a referendum on the issue. Any deal between the US and Czech governments would have to be approved by parliament, but opponents to the radar say that's not enough.

Emily Harris/Emily Harris
Opponents to U.S. plans to install a radar in the Czech Republic.

Opponents to U.S. plans to install a radar in the Czech Republic as part of a missile defense system gather signatures at a small protest in Pardubice, Czech Republic. A handful of opponents have been traveling around the country by bus, gathering signatures in an attempt to force a referendum on the issue. Any deal between the US and Czech governments would have to be approved by parliament, but opponents to the radar say that's not enough.

Emily Harris/Emily Harris

The United States is hoping new concessions over its plans to put a missile defense system in Europe will satisfy Moscow's concerns that such a move would destabilize relations between the former Cold War rivals.

But so far, Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't appear satisfied with U.S. proposals, which include allowing Moscow to potentially station observers at the proposed defense sites.

At a European-Russian summit in Portugal last week, Putin compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

"For us the situation is technologically very similar," Putin told reporters at the conference. "We have withdrawn the remains of our bases from Vietnam, from Cuba, and have liquidated everything there, while at our borders, such threats against our country are being created."

Putin, however, said his personal friendship with President Bush and the changed relationship between Moscow and Washington means the issue would not bring the two sides to the brink of war, as happened during the Cuban crisis.

Russia is not the only obstacle to U.S. plans. Skepticism in the intended host countries — Poland and the Czech Republic — is growing.

In Prague last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Washington would be open to having some kind of Russian presence at the planned missile defense sites in Europe.

He made it clear that could only happen with Czech or Polish approval. The next day, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said the Russian military would not be permitted to inspect the sites, although he left the possibility of other Russian inspections open. Still, the plan gave instant ammunition to radar opponents.

The same day Gates spoke, Czech activists against hosting the U.S. system set off on a cross-country bus tour. Others have called for a nationwide referendum on the issue.

Jana Danihelkova, a 28-year-old who works in information technology, says because the Soviet Union occupied her country for two decades, she is wary about any foreign military presence in the Czech Republic, even troops from America, a close ally.

"I'm just afraid if it starts as one or two, then it could grow to 20, or 30," she says. "And that could turn into a well established presence that could be around forever."

Another U.S. offer to Moscow is to build the system but delay activating it - until there is concrete proof of a threat. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said that doesn't mean Moscow and Washington would have to agree on the threat.

"We would not give Russia a veto," he said. "We would not ask Russia's permission to turn it on."

Instead, he said Washington could share threat assessments with Russia. One threat benchmark several U.S. officials offer as an example is if Iran tested missiles that could reach Europe.

Getting Moscow on board might actually improve support for missile defense among some Czech politicians who fear offending Russia. Still, political analyst Jiri Pehe said any parliamentary vote would be close, and given upcoming U.S. presidential elections, it makes no sense to hurry.

He said it is "extremely inconvenient" for Czech politicians to "put their political futures on line in the name of the radar" if the project could be cancelled by the next American administration.

The U.S. is in talks with the Czech government over the radar installation, with an agreement and parliamentary vote possible by early next year.

Washington is also negotiating with Warsaw about hosting interceptor rockets for the missile shield. The Bush administration had hoped to wrap up an agreement with Poland by the end of this year. Parliamentary elections earlier this month, however, means the current government in Warsaw is on the way out. The new government is expected to focus on patching up relations with Russia, and not rush a missile defense.

Some political leaders said Poland needs to get concrete military benefits in exchange for allowing the U.S. to build the rocket site there. Analyst Jacek Zakowski expects Poland's new leaders to push Washington for real influence at the site, rather than just signing over land.

He said the amount of knowledge the Polish government will have about what goes on at the site and how much influence Warsaw will carry there is a "serious political problem" that has not yet been thoroughly debated.

U.S. measures proposed with Moscow in mind leave many in Warsaw and Prague feeling they, the potential hosts of the military hardware, are pawns in a familiar bilateral game.

One Czech activist says he'd quit fighting the installation if it were a NATO project instead.

Bush, Critics Face Off on European Missile Shield

President Bush at National Defense University.

hide captionPresident Bush speaks at the National Defense University. Bush has said that Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions pose a threat, and an American-led missile defense system for Europe was needed.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Bush has described what he calls an "emerging threat" to the United States and Europe from Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In a speech on Oct. 23, he said "the need for missile defense in Europe is real, and I believe it's urgent."

The president's proposed solution for Europe is a radar installation in the Czech Republic, and a site in Poland for launching missiles designed to shoot down attacking missiles before they reach their targets.

Critics say there are at least three things wrong with the president's proposal: they say Iran doesn't pose a significant missile threat; that the missile defense could touch off an arms race with Russia; and that the technology to shoot down enemy missiles can't do the job.

Here's a look at where various interested parties stand on these three issues:

The Iranian Threat

President Bush says United States intelligence shows that "with continuing foreign assistance," Iran could develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States and Europe before 2015. Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, the head of the government's Missile Defense Agency, says Iran could be ready to hit shorter-range targets in Europe even sooner. The key here is "continuing foreign assistance." Bush is alluding to aid from North Korea, which is believed to have sold missile technology and parts to Iran in the past.

Hans Blix, the former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations, told the Canada AM television program that he thinks Bush is overreacting to an uncertain threat that would take more than seven years to unfold. Blix pointed out that the United States has now reached a nuclear agreement with North Korea and said the administration should consider a similar approach with Iran.

Conflict with Russia

President Bush has argued that the missile defense system poses no threat to Russia, which sharply opposed the plan when it was first announced.

Gary Schmitt, of the American Enterprise Institute, says it's "ridiculous" to think the system would threaten Russia, which has hundreds of missiles that could strike the United States, yet cannot be hit by the European missile defense system.

"When you have nuclear subs that can fire missiles from under the Arctic ice cap," Schmitt says, "why worry about this installation in Europe?"

Obering says the United States has offered to collaborate with Russia, and that Russian officials have already been present at tests of missile defense system. Russia has long argued, though, that a country that believes itself to be shielded from enemy missiles is less fearful of retaliation and more likely to use offensive missiles of its own. Russian officials may not be afraid of the relatively few missiles that would be deployed in Poland, but they do fear that the radar detection system could be used to monitor them. Even so, Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he's willing to talk more about the issue, and has put forward some ideas of his own for collaboration.

Effectiveness of the Missile Defense System

Both sides have colorful analogies to show how hard it is to find and hit an incoming enemy missile. The Missile Defense Agency calls it akin to "hitting a bullet with another bullet," but then goes on to say that's "a capability that has been successfully demonstrated in test after test."

Philip Coyle, a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, says missile defense is "like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 17,000 miles an hour out in space."

Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief weapons evaluator during the Clinton administration, says demonstrations of the system's success are far fewer than the Missile Defense Agency claims. For one thing, he says the agency isn't counting planned tests that were aborted in 2004 and 2005, even after the dummy target missile was in the air. In one case, it was because the target missile wasn't behaving as predicted, and the implication is that the system can't hit "enemy" missiles unless they follow a carefully pre-scripted scenario.

Coyle also says that the tests have been conducted against missiles that aren't protected by decoys and countermeasures that an attacker would be expected to use. He says the system could be blinded by clouds of metal fragments – say, paperclips – released along with the missile. "I think Iran knows how to do paperclips," Coyle says. He adds that the defenses could also be confused by decoys, such as balloons shaped like missile warheads.

Obering, the Missile Defense Agency director, disputes this concern, saying that the current system can overcome simple countermeasures, in part with X-band radars mounted on ships, that he says are "extremely powerful" in picking out the targets from debris and discriminating between warheads and decoys. He acknowledged that the agency is still trying to figure out how to defeat more sophisticated countermeasures.

Funding for the System

Critics such as Coyle point out that the European plan has little support in the Democratic-led Congress — but this doesn't necessarily mean it won't be built. Obering says his agency expects to get about $8.6 billion dollars this year. The only constraint on spending the money in Europe is getting approval from the host nations, and site preparation is already underway, he says.

It's unclear whether Poland and the Czech Republic will approve the projects. Poland's recent election changed the government there. The likely new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has said he'll take a tougher line on missile defense. The Czech government generally supports the radar site, but polls show most Czech citizens oppose it.

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