U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that the decision to overhaul plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic is based on new intelligence and will result in better protection for American armed forces and allies in Europe.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Secretary Gates said the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran has been slower to develop its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities than previously thought.
He says this is one reason he recommended scrapping plans to build a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and installing ground-based interceptors in Poland.
Gates said shorter range Iranian missiles are a more urgent concern.
"The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected," said Robert Gates. " This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies."
To counter that threat, the U.S. military will deploy Aegis ships equipped with missile interceptors along with radar surveillance sensors to counter the Iranian threat.
The next phase will involve fielding upgraded interceptors on land in Europe, possibly in Poland or the Czech Republic.
Secretary Gates said the new plan will allow flexibility and put in place a defense system more quickly than the previous proposal.
"Perhaps most important, though, we can now field initial elements of the system to protect our forces in Europe and our allies roughly six to seven years earlier than the previous plan - a fact made more relevant by continued delays in the Czech and Polish ratification processes that have caused repeated slips in the timeline," he said.
Russia strongly objected to the original plan, calling it a threat to its security.
Secretary Gates said that while the missile shield was never a threat to Russia, the new configuration will likely allay some of Moscow's concerns.
Gates also addressed criticism from some members of the U.S. Congress that the change will embolden Russia at the expense of America's European allies.
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," said Gates. "The security of Europe has been a vital national interest of the United States for my entire career. The circumstances, borders and threats may have changed, but that commitment continues."
In May, Iran launched the Sejil-2 - a missile with an estimated range of 2,000 kilometers that could strike Israel and Europe.
Despite the missile threat, Secretary Gates said there is still time to negotiate with Tehran over the country's nuclear program.
"We are all concerned about Iran running out the clock on us on their nuclear program," he said. "But our view is, there is still time for diplomacy and, I might say, sanctions to persuade the Iranians that their security will be diminished by going down the track of nuclear weapons."
The last phase of the new missile defense plan, to be ready by 2020, would be to develop interceptors with the capability of blocking long-range Iranian missiles aimed at the United States.