So what is the status of the U.S. efforts to build an adjunct of its ground-based, mid-course missile defense system in Poland?
The issue is back in the news after a call between U.S. president-elect Barack Obama and the Polish Lech Kaczynski. The latter says that Obama promised to go ahead with the so called European site, which would see 10 interceptors placed in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. Obama officials in Washington are apparently debunking that, saying no commitment was made.
So does this signal the end of missile defense? The last Democrat to be elected president, Bill Clinton, famously curtailed missile defense spending in his first year in office, although during his tenure – in large part due to Congress – billions were spent on development anyway.
The Obama position has been to focus on testing, and that’s where the European site could encounter delays. The interceptor to be used in Europe is a two-stage rocket design, while those at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg, Calif., are three-stage designs. And the two stage version has not been flight tested, yet. So if anyone is looking for a reason to delay, that’s likely going to be the focus of the debate. It will be at least another year or two until testing of the two-stage system starts.
(MDA sketch of missile site. Credit: Missile Defense Agency)
Current plans calls for construction of the interceptor site to start next year in Poland, with work on the radar facility to follow in the Czech Republic in 2010. The radar should be operational in 2012, whereas the interceptor facility will take until at least 2013 to be ready.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency also plans to forward deploy a ground-based radar in the Caucasus region to help with missile tracking to augment the Czech radar, although when that may happen remains unclear.
The U.S. says the system is primarily aimed at protecting the U.S. and much of Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles – some southern parts of Europe wouldn’t be covered, so NATO is discussing how to augment the U.S. capability.
Russia, however, views the ten interceptors as a threat to its large ballistic missile arsenal, and has made various threats against Poland and the the Czech Republic to stop the building. Most recently, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has threatened to place short-range Iskander ballistic missiles in its Baltic enclave Kaliningrad.