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Obama to restructure anti-ballistic missile shield in Europe

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Whoever read yesterday’s yellow press headlines may have had the impression that this was a ground-breaking day for US defence policy. All around the globe one could read that US President Barack Obama scrapped one of the most prominent and controversial plans of the Bush Administration: the missile defence shield to be based in the Czech Republic and Poland to counter a potential ballistic missile threat from Iran. 

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But that’s not all the truth and, therefore, not as ground-breaking as one might have hoped. In fact, Barack Obama announced that he intends to restructure US missile defence architecture in Europe – a slight difference, nevertheless, with many possible and probable effects on the international political climate and on future military strategies and scenarios.

Let’s call it a step in a new approach. But what exactly does this step look like? Is it a step forward, sideways or backwards? Or might Obama, perhaps, only have pivoted on the spot? At least it opens up new perspectives and brings a certain motion into the stalled process of international dialogue on this particular matter. And it was up to no one less than Obama to announce any movement in this programme, allegedly devised for safeguarding the Western world.

For several months the new administration has been analysing the plans and the situation. According to Obama’s official statement yesterday, the change of policy is based on an “updated intelligence assessment” of Iran’s offensive abilities. He further stated that the “new missile defense architecture in Europe ... will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the... program" of his predecessor.

The Wall Street Journal was one of the first to announce that the Government was preparing a change of policy which was especially due to a new assessment of the threat from possible Iranian ballistic missiles. According to unnamed sources, the development of such missiles in Iran has not advanced as quickly as usually anticipated.

Much has been written about this ambitious plan during the past years, be it politically, strategically or technically. The majority may have had a bad aftertaste of the seemingly reckless approach of former President Bush, who did not consider asking the Russians, NATO or any other states of the region if they felt threatened or ignored by the US preparing a major military programme to be established in their front garden.

If it is for President Obama, the US will no longer insist on creating one powerful missile defence shield in the Czech Republic (radar site) and Poland (ten missile interceptors) but will, rather, seek solutions that might be more compatible with present requirements and international sentiments.

As a the White House explained, the US Department of Defense now developed a four-phased, adaptive approach for missile defence in Europe, as follows:

• Phase One (around 2011) envisions the deployment of currently available missile defence assets, "including sea-based Aegis Weapon System, the SM-3 interceptor, and sensors such as the forward-based Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance system."
• Phase Two (around 2015) will provide more capable sea-based and land-based versions of the SM-3 interceptor and will see deployment of more advanced radars.
• Phases Three (around 2018) and Four (around 2020) will mainly involve the development and deployment of interceptors and radars with better capabilities against medium- and intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs.

According to a White House paper, the US plans to integrate its missile defence architecture with NATO capabilities and welcomes cooperation with Russia in this area.

As could be seen from statements of the political leadership in Russia and the NATO states, Obama’s step has brought about a wave of positive reactions and may loosen up the future process of negotiations. Still, existing anxieties in the Czech Republic, as well as in Poland, concerning the possible shift of the US towards Russia and away from them should be quickly averted, as Obama is not a politician who deliberately changes fronts or pursues the heritage of a divided world of the Cold War era. According to AFP and RIA Novosti, Polish and Czech leaders insisted Thursday that ties with the United States would remain strong despite Obama’s decision to revise the missile defence plans.

The bilateral meetings of the US and Russia in July (see have proven that both sides are prepared to make a step in the direction of the other, however, without abandoning the individual character of the countries reason of state. The support and welcome by most Western countries expressed yesterday shows that a new chapter has been opened. The upcoming days will show how big the step is which Obama is willing to make and which the international community will be prepared to follow.

Yesterday’s statement by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen contains the correct principle for an effective missile defence shield, reading: “I welcome that the US today has discussed with us how we can develop a missile defence which can include all Allies and protect us all.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel – formerly supporting Bush’s plans in principle – now speaks of a “sign of hope.” But one should not speak of hope that quickly, especially without knowing of the outcome of the US revision of its missile shield plans and, particularly, of the reactions of Russia to any new decision or plan. So far, Russian officials reacted positively to the announcements. As RIA Novosti quoted a press officer of the Russian Foreign Ministry, “such a development would be in line with the interests of our relations with the United States.” On the other hand, Russia's NATO envoy today cautioned against "childish euphoria" over Washington's recent decision.

Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, in a statement on Thursday evening even went as far in promoting a joint approach, saying that the “responsible decision of the US president” was a good condition for an anti-missile cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

The voices calling for a missile defence shield in the US still are well-heard, saying that such a defence system is vital for US and European security, as Iran's ballistic missile programme allegedly is a growing threat. However, considerations of a future missile shield protecting Europe and the US had already shifted in the past from the inflexible and, perhaps, even inefficient solution of the Czech-Polish bases to different scenarios comprising land-based solutions in Israel and Turkey as well as the use of more flexible sea-based assets. Next to easing US-Russian tensions, some observers also added the argument that the change of policy may, furthermore, be strongly influenced by the internal debate in the US regarding the cuts in its military budget amid the ongoing global recession.

Any of the above mentioned alternatives including Israel, Turkey or a sea-based solution would represent an even greater threat to Russian interests in the region. The question remains if the new positive political climate could open the way towards a joint NATO-Russian missile shield. Much has been agreed upon between the US and Russia in the past months that may allow a further mutual decision even in such an important and controversial matter. This is the main point where the “hope”, expressed by Angela Merkel, is really appropriate and expedient, as this would not only represent a political decision but, rather, a true strategic, forward-looking, and effective plan.

by Nicolas von Kospoth
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