The Bush administration says it is pressing ahead with plans to extend a U.S. missile defense system to Europe to defend NATO allies from possible future missile launches from North Korea, Iran, and other nations. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where Pentagon officials are attempting to allay deep Russian misgivings about the program and perhaps even secure some form of Russian participation in the initiative.
When he sought the presidency in 2000, George Bush promised to redouble U.S. efforts to forge a missile defense system, an idea first championed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s as a shield against the weaponry of the Soviet Union.
Today, the Bush administration believes it has overcome more than two decades of persistent technological obstacles and setbacks to the point where it can contemplate not only protecting American soil from missile attack, but portions of Europe as well.
The Soviet Union has long ceased to exist. But, according to U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy Eric Edelman, new threats have emerged. "We are doing this because we face a growing danger of the proliferation of ballistic missile technology. There are some 20 countries actively developing [ballistic missile] programs. We are particularly concerned, of course, about the threats from North Korea. We are also, of course, increasingly concerned about the missile capability that Iran is developing," he said.
Edelman spoke at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday.
The Bush administration envisions installing a limited number of missile interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic. The plan is proceeding despite strong objections from Russia, which views the anti-missile shield as a threat to its strategic capabilities and a violation of past agreements between Washington and Moscow. The fact that the new missile interceptors and the radar system would be housed in nations that once formed part of the Soviet bloc is seen as an irritant, as well.
Undersecretary Edelman stressed that Russia has nothing to fear. "The plan we have been discussing is completely defensive in nature. It does not pose a threat, we believe, to Russia's nuclear deterrent. We do not think that 10 kinetic interceptors with no explosive warhead, much less nuclear warhead, would pose a threat to Russia's hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads," he said.
In fact, Edelman said U.S. officials have had extensive contacts with their Russian counterparts to discuss the matter and possibly secure some form of Russian participation in the program. He noted that missiles launched from Iran or North Korea would be of concern to Moscow, as well.
The undersecretary did not say what, if any, common ground has been reached with Russia, but news reports from Moscow quote Russian officials as rejecting cooperation with the United States on missile defense.
Edelman says the United States estimates Iran will possess the ability to launch missiles capable of reaching Europe or beyond by 2015, and that action before then is warranted. "It is prudent to have that defensive capability in place before the threat matures. I think trying to put it in place afterwards would become a lot harder, and would subject our European friends and allies and, potentially, our forces, to being subject to both attack and blackmail," he said.
The defense undersecretary said extending the U.S. missile shield will ensure that the defense of the United States remains "coupled" with that of Europe, even as memories of the Cold War fade and new challenges arise.