The Bush administration has moved closer toward its goal of establishing long-range anti-missile outposts in Europe, completing basing agreements recently with the Czech Republic and Poland over Russian objections and threats. The earliest that site construction could start is late next year if lawmakers in the United States and the two host countries back the effort.
U.S. talks with the Czech Republic and Poland to host a missile tracking radar and 10 long-range ballistic missile interceptors, respectively, stretch back to at least 2004, although official negotiations began early last year. Concerns about Iran's ballistic missile programs drive the effort, say U.S. officials. Russia, however, sees itself as the target and vigorously denounces the project, warning periodically that the sites, if built, will be in Russia's nuclear crosshairs.
Meeting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the day the U.S.-Polish pact was signed, Polish President Lech Kaczynski Aug. 20 expressed optimism that his country's legislators would approve the project. A few weeks earlier, a similar statement likely would have been seen as wishful thinking given that a majority of Poles reportedly opposed the plan, but Polish public opinion shifted after Russian armor and aircraft pounded Georgia beginning Aug. 7.
Although Polish government officials have not drawn a connection, Russia's show of brute force might have been a factor behind Polish and U.S. negotiators reaching a deal on the anti-missile site Aug. 14 after more than 18 months of talks. In an Aug. 17 interview with Fox News, Rice said Russia's actions had stiffened the attitudes of some of its neighbors, citing as one example "Poland, the fact that we are moving forward on missile defense." She also denied any official linkage, stating Aug. 20 "the timing, of course, is simply the timing of when the agreement was completed."
Yet, Michael Wyganowski, a former Polish diplomat who is now executive director of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, told Arms Control Today Aug. 20 that he saw a "direct correlation" between the U.S.-Polish pact's conclusion and the Russian-Georgian conflict. He contended that the Polish government became more willing to make a deal in order to stay in step with its public's changing mood as Russia pressed its attack.
Prior to the Russian-Georgian fighting, Poland was seeking increased U.S. military assistance and weapons supplies, including shorter-range anti-missile systems, as part of a final agreement. The negotiated deal only commits the United States to establish a consultative mechanism with Poland to discuss its military modernization needs and to deploy to Poland a single Patriot battery, which typically consists of five missile launchers. Patriot interceptors are designed to counter aircraft and short- to medium-range ballistic missiles.
A principal negotiator of the pact, John Rood, the acting U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told reporters in Warsaw Aug. 20 that the deployment of the U.S. Patriot battery was "significant" because it meant that there would be two U.S. sites on Polish territory. Polish officials have been clear that their interest in hosting U.S. missile interceptors has much less to do with protecting against a possible Iranian missile threat than developing a closer relationship with the United States.
The Czech Republic did not make similar demands as Poland in its negotiations with the United States, enabling an accord to be reached much earlier, on April 3. It was formally signed July 8. Unlike the Polish deal, the text of the Czech agreement has been made public.
The Czech agreement grants the United States exclusive control of the base and operation of all missile defense activities, although the Czech Republic is to be informed "promptly" of any "engagements." Washington is to pay the full cost of building, operating, and maintaining the site. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) estimates that costs for initially getting both the Czech and Polish bases up and running will be as high as $4 billion.
U.S. personnel at the Czech base are not to exceed 250 in number, and the Czech government will maintain an office with a representative and staff there. The agreement requires Prague's approval of all site visits by non-U.S. foreign personnel. Russia had appealed for permanent liaisons at the proposed U.S. anti-missile sites, but the Czech and Polish governments adamantly objected, recalling their past Cold War histories of unwillingly hosting Soviet forces.
The agreement is scheduled to be submitted to the Czech parliament in September, and a Czech diplomatic source told Arms Control Today Aug.19 that a vote could take place the following month. When Polish lawmakers might vote on the U.S.-Polish accord has not been announced. The two basing pacts are legally-binding executive agreements, but both contain withdrawal clauses that can lead to their termination.
Congress has made Czech and Polish parliamentary approval of their respective agreements a condition for funding Pentagon requests to start building the anti-missile sites. Current law also forbids the Pentagon from spending money to acquire or deploy the 10 interceptors designated for Poland until the secretary of defense certifies that the interceptor model can work, following "successful, operationally realistic flight testing." Although some missile defense proponents in Congress are suggesting that the Russian-Georgian conflict justifies relaxing the conditions to accelerate congressional funding for the deployment, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chair of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, released an Aug. 20 statement that "Congress will continue to insist...that the secretary of defense certifies the system is operationally effective before any funds can be used for acquisition or deployment."
The MDA plans to conduct the first flight test of the interceptor in 2009 and then two target intercept attempts in 2010. The interceptor will be a modified version of the approximately two dozen U.S. strategic interceptors currently deployed in Alaska and California. Since 1999, versions of those interceptors have scored seven hits in 12 attempts, but the Pentagon's weapons testing office assessed earlier this year that those tests have not been "sufficient to provide a high level of statistical confidence in [the system's] limited capabilities."
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, has generally said he would support missile defense efforts if they are effective and not too costly. His Republican counterpart,Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is a strong advocate of missile defense and called the recent U.S.-Polish agreement "an important step."