Poland speeds up missile defense plan amid Ukraine crisis
(This March 20 story was corrected to show selection of best offer to take place within months, not weeks, after clarification from Polish Defence Ministry; also replaces comments from Defence Ministry spokesman)
By Marcin Goettig and Andrea Shalal
WARSAW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Poland has decided to speed up its tender for a missile defense system, the Defence Ministry said, in a sign of Warsaw's disquiet over the tension between neighboring Ukraine and Russia.
"By the end of this year we want to already have chosen an offer. That is the acceleration by several months, compared to our original plans, that we are talking about," Czeslaw Mroczek, Deputy Defence Minister, told Reuters.
The NATO member had planned to determine the supplier of its missile defence system in 2015, but the crisis in Ukraine and concerns about Russia's annexation of Crimea have prompted officials to speed up the timetable.
There are four bidders: France's Thales, in a consortium with European group MBDA and the Polish state defence group; the Israeli government; Raytheon of the United States; and the MEADS consortium led by Lockheed Martin.
One of the bidders, MEADS, said the tender was worth about $5 billion, but experts say the whole missile defence system could be worth as much as 40 billion zlotys ($13 billion), including maintenance costs. It is to be completed by the end of 2022.
Mroczek said the decision to accelerate the process was partly caused by Russia's military intervention in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.
"To a certain extent, the decision on accelerating this process is the result of a review commissioned by the prime minister and the defence minister because of the situation in Ukraine," Mroczek said.
Poland fell under Soviet domination after World War Two, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, but was one of the first to shake off Communist rule in 1989. It has taken an active diplomatic role in the crisis over Ukraine, including by requesting NATO consultations earlier this month.
U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch welcomed Poland's decision to speed up its defence plans.
"I think the action in Crimea makes it abundantly clear that NATO needs to do more to upgrade its defenses, not just missile defenses," the Massachusetts Democrat told Reuters.
"But certainly I can fully support the decision by Poland to expedite that whole process and I think it's entirely appropriate that we should support that effort," he added.
The first phase of the Polish system is to comprise eight sets of mid-range interceptor rockets, which may later be supplemented by short-range ones. Poland has already passed legislation to secure funding for the shield, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.
The planned system is separate from elements of a U.S. missile shield to be deployed in Poland by 2018, as confirmed by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on a visit to Warsaw this week. ($1 = 3.0482 Polish Zlotys)