US defense chief defends shift on missile shield


Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday rejected criticism of the new US plans for missile defense in Europe that were announced this week, maintaining the move did not concede anything to Russia.

Gates noted in a New York Times opinion column that the previous program would not have been operational until at least 2017 at the earliest and insisted the shift provided "greater flexibility to adapt as new threats develop and old ones recede."

At Gates' recommendation, President Barack Obama announced Thursday the move to replace the shield plan, which had sparked serious discord in US-Russian relations, with a more mobile system targeting Iranian short and medium-range missiles.

The new plan, Gates wrote, has been "distorted as some sort of concession to Russia."

Even if US defense chiefs would "welcome" Moscow's approval, Gates said, the plan did not change the fact of an American missile defense system on the European continent.

"We are strengthening -- not scrapping -- missile defense in Europe," he wrote.

The announcement this week followed a shift in intelligence assessments of Iran's ballistic program, which concluded the most immediate threat was Tehran's short- and medium-range arsenal, not yet-to-be-developed long-range missiles.

 And while the previous system would have involved building a radar system in the Czech Republic and basing missiles in Poland -- the scenario that infuriated Russia -- Gates said the new proposal would be workable in the coming years.

The move "provides some antimissile capacity very soon -- a hedge against Iran's managing to field missiles much earlier than had been previously predicted," Gates said.

Ties between Moscow and the West have been slowly recovering since Obama took over at the White House, promising a "reset" in their relations.

Since the US leader's announcement this week, Russian officials ruled out a quid-pro-quo approach in its ties with Washington, flatly refusing to link Washington's decision on the US missile plan to possible Russian concessions on Iran.

Source: AFP

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