WASHINGTON - By adding 14 interceptors to a missile defense system based in Alaska and California, the U.S. is abandoning a critical part of a European system strongly opposed by Russia. Yet the decision also could provide a potential opening for new arms control talks.
The Obama administration on Friday cited development problems and a lack of money in announcing the cancellation of the interceptors set to be deployed in Poland and possibly Romania early next decade.
Russian officials suspected that the interceptors were a counter to their missiles and had indicated that they would not consider further nuclear arms cuts unless their concerns were resolved.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the cancellation was part of an overall restructuring of missile defense plans aimed at stopping missiles from North Korea and Iran.
He made no reference to Russia's objections to the European plans, but said that other parts of program in Europe would move forward and that the U.S. commitment to missile defense in the region "remains ironclad."
The restructuring includes spending $1 billion to add the 14 new interceptors to the 26 that are in underground silos in Alaska.
The shift in U.S. missile defense plans in Europe is the second major change to the program since President Obama has been in the White House. It could cause unease among some U.S. allies, including Poland and Romania, who see the system as a sign of U.S. engagement in the region and a counterweight to Russia.
Missile defense has been a contentious issue since President George W. Bush sought to base long-range interceptors in Central Europe to stop Iranian missiles from reaching the U.S. Russia believed the program was aimed at countering its own missiles and undermining its nuclear deterrent.
Obama reworked the Bush administration's plan soon after taking office in 2009. He canceled an earlier interceptor planned for Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, replacing the high-speed interceptors with slower ones that could stop Iran's medium-range missiles.
Under Obama's plan, the interceptors were to be upgraded gradually over four phases, culminating early next decade with those intended to protect both Europe and the United States.
Russia initially welcomed the changes to the Bush plan, and relations between the two powers improved. That, in turn, paved the way for the New START treaty setting new limits on both countries' nuclear arsenals.
But Moscow has ramped up its criticism of Obama's revisions, which are backed by NATO, and claims the fourth and last planned upgrade of the interceptors would be able to stop its intercontinental missiles launched at the U.S. and undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Whether it was intended to, the decision to cancel plans for the long-range interceptors will help the president's arms control goals.