WASHINGTON President-elect Barack Obama's administration will review plans to deploy elements of a U.S. missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama's nominee for a top Pentagon post said on Thursday.
The plan to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic has strained relations between Washington and Moscow, which says the system is a threat to Russian security despite U.S. assurances to the contrary.
U.S. officials say such a small number of missiles could easily be overwhelmed by Russia's large arsenal and that the system is aimed at protecting the United States and its allies from "rogue states," particularly Iran.
Michele Flournoy, Obama's nominee to become undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, said the plans should be reviewed as part of a regular broad look at policy, known as the quadrennial defense review, or QDR, due to take place this year.
Flournoy was questioned on the missile defense plans for Europe at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to consider her nomination.
Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, asked Flournoy if she believed it would be important to review the plan "in the broader security context of Europe, including our relations with Russia" and other issues.
"Yes, I do, sir," Flournoy replied. "I think that's an important candidate issue for the upcoming QDR."
She did not elaborate but, in a written response to a question from the committee, Flournoy said she believed it would be in the United States' interest if Washington and Moscow could agree to cooperate on missile defense.
"The final contours of such an approach would require close consultations between the Administration and Congress," she said.
The Bush administration offered Russia cooperation on missile defense but Moscow rejected the offer as insufficient.
U.S. officials say construction at the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic could begin this year and the system could become operational between 2011 and 2013.
Obama has said he supports missile defense in general but that it should be developed pragmatically and cost-effectively and with assurances the technology works.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will stay in office under Obama, also backs missile defense.
Missile defense has been a flagship policy of the Bush administration and is currently the Pentagon's most expensive arms development program, costing roughly $10 billion a year.
Critics charge the system has been too costly and that the technology behind it is largely unproven and would need far more realistic testing before deployment.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)