WASHINGTON The United States will initially deploy Navy ships equipped with Aegis missile interceptors to help defend Europe and U.S. forces against threats from Iran and others, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
As part of a revamped U.S. missile shield program, Gates said the Pentagon planned at a later phase to deploy land-based interceptors and was exploring the option of stationing some of them in the Czech Republic and Poland. He said Washington remained committed to defending Europe from missile threats.
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," he told reporters at the Pentagon
Marine Corps General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon also envisioned eventually deploying a land-based radar as part of the system which would ideally be based in the Caucasus.
The Bush administration had planned to station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.
Gates said the decision to change plans was based mainly on technological developments and a shift in intelligence assessments to meet short and medium-range missile threats posed by Iran.
But he said the change should also address concerns voiced by Moscow, which vociferously opposed the previous plan.
"The Russians are probably not going to be pleased that we are continuing with missile defense efforts in Europe," Gates said.
"But, at the same time, there are two changes in this architecture that should allay some of their -- what we think (of as) unfounded -- concerns."
Gates said deploying ships in the near term with SM-3 interceptors, made by Raytheon Co, would provide the flexibility to move U.S. missile defense capabilities as may be needed.
Ships with Aegis interceptor systems are capable of blowing up ballistic missiles above the atmosphere. The system can track over 100 targets, military officials said.
Cartwright said the Pentagon envisioned keeping three ships at any given time in and around the Mediterranean and the North Sea to protect "areas of interest," with the possibility of "surging" additional ships to the region as needed.
A second phase of the system, Gates said, involved deploying upgraded, land-based SM-3s starting in about 2015.
"We have now the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors in northern and southern Europe that near term can provide missile defense coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others," he said.
"We can now field initial elements of the system to protect our forces in Europe and our allies roughly six to seven years earlier than the previous plan, a fact made more relevant by repeated delays in the Czech and Polish ratification processes that have caused repeated slips in the timeline."
Gates said consultations on deploying land-based SM-3s had begun with Poland and the Czech Republic.
Cartwright said the two countries were good candidates for the planned land-based system, but added: "There are other candidates in that region, and then, obviously, deeper into Europe, that would be good sites for the SM-3."
(Reporting by Adam Entous, Phil Stewart and Andrew Gray, editing by Jackie Frank)