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Analysts See Flexibility in Obama Missile Plan

The Obama administration has unveiled a new ballistic missile defense plan while shelving the previous program put forth by President George Bush. In this report from Washington,

The decision to pursue a new approach was unveiled after a lengthy policy review of the European based ballistic missile defense shield proposed by the Bush administration. That plan was to deploy 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials at the time said the system was needed to defend Europe and the United States against potential threats from countries such as Iran.

In presenting the new plan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters the shift came about because U.S. intelligence believes the Iranian threat comes from its short and medium-range missiles rather than from its long-range ballistic missiles - which the previous plan addressed.

Daryl Kimball, Director of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says the Bush plan focused on a non-existent threat.

"What we need to recognize is that first of all, the threat against which this [the Bush administration's] system is designed does not yet exist - the Iranian long-range missile threat - and won't materialize for several years more," said Daryl Kimball. "The system that the Bush administration first proposed has not been proven to work and the Defense Department has recently noted that even if Iran had a long range missile capability, the 30 interceptors the United States already has in Alaska and California are adequate to the task of shooting down a small handful of enemy long range missiles."

Kimball says Secretary Gates has presented a far more flexible and adaptable plan to deal with real threats.

"Because it does not necessarily require a fixed radar site and a fixed interceptor deployment site," he said. "That means that as the threat does or does not develop, the United States can adjust more easily over time. So what he [Secretary Gates] talked in particular, was the deployment over the next several years of the SM-3 interceptor missile which can be based on land or at sea on an Aeagis destroyer, as well as using mobile radars - including possibly some of the Russian radars on Russia's southern flank to provide early warning and battle management for the missile defense system."

Russia had strongly opposed the Bush administration proposal, saying it was targeted against Moscow - a view rejected by Washington.

Steve Andreasen, a former arms control expert on the National Security Council who is now teaching at the University of Minnesota, says Moscow also saw the missile defense system as the first step in a worldwide American missile defense program.

"Russia believes that the U.S. strategic missile defense system - which the Bush administration began deploying in the United States during its second term, with missile defenses in Alaska and California, and also the Bush administration reached agreements to put some of this system in Poland and the Czech Republic - they believe that while today the system is small and may not impact their strategic nuclear forces, at some point the system may grow and expand," said Steve Andreasen. "And so they view this as being a factor in their strategic nuclear deterrent."

The new U.S. missile defense program was announced as U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev prepare to review progress on a follow-on accord to the 1991 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty - or START 1- which expires in December.

Andreasen says he has not seen Moscow linking progress in the START 1 follow on negotiations to the U.S. shelving the Bush administration's missile defense program.

"My sense is that that is not going to be an issue that will hold up, for example, conclusion of a START 1 follow-on accord," he said. "But I think the Russians are basically making clear they view the issue of missile defenses as being an important issue, in particular as you go forward beyond the START 1 follow-on agreement, in some future accord relating to nuclear reductions."

Initial Russian response to the Obama administration's decision to shelve plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe was positive. Russian President Medvedev was quoted as saying that decision was "a responsible move."