President Barack Obama announced Sep. 17 that he plans to replace the Bush administrations missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland with a “new approach” by deploying a reconfigured system aimed at intercepting shorter-range missiles.

The original plan proposed by the Bush administration in 2007 was intended to defend against long-range missile launches from “rouge” states such as North Korea and Iran. Russia, on the other hand, claimed missiles on its border could lead to a possible threat to its overall security, although the U.S. denied such charges.

Pentagon officials and the Obama administration said the decision to move the shield was based on intelligence indicating Iran is focused on developing short- and medium-range missiles rather than long-range intercontinental missiles originally feared by the Bush administration.

Obama said the new missile defense architecture in Eruope will be “smarter, safer, and swifter,” saying he agrees with the Bush administration’s assessment that Iran’s missile program continues to pose a threat.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates notes the new system is not abandoning the original proposal. The new plan however is aimed at enhancing and redesigning “our ability to respond to the most immediate threats,” he said.

The original plan was to deploy a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. The new system would deploy smaller missiles, at first aboard ships and later probably either in southern Europe or turkey, Obama officials say.

The decision comes after an extensive missile defense policy review of the European deployment, which was completed this month.

Obama said he called leaders of both the Czech Republic and Poland to reaffirm “our deep and close ties.” According to reports both countries may not be very happy with the new plan, fearing their Russian neighbor. Although many citizens in both countries opposed the original plan.
Obama did reiterate the U.S.’s commitment under Article V of the NATO charter that says an attack on one member is an attack on the entire alliance.  

Critics in the U.S. and groups that advocate for nuclear disarmament welcome the news and say the Obama plan recognizes the role of international diplomacy and responsibility between countries especially between Russia and the U.S.

“The Obama administration made the right call,” said Tom Z. Collina, research director with the Arms Control Association in a press release. “It would have been extremely unwise to proceed with the Bush administration’s plan to rush untested interceptors into Poland to deal with an Iranian long-range missile threat that does not yet exist,” he said.

U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran will not pose such a threat until 2015 at the earliest, says Collina.

“President Obama’s more pragmatic approach steers the U.S. toward a European missile defense that addresses more realistic threats and also facilitates deeper reductions in bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles,” said Collina. “This is a win-win-win for the United States, Europe and global security,” he added.

David Culp with the Friends Committee on National Legislation agrees.
“This is a very positive step and it’s going to make it easier to get a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia,” said Culp.

Although Culp said people should not read too much into the new plan, which is not abandoning the original aim, it’s just moving it, he said.  

When it comes to military spending not much has changed, said Culp. “It’s a more limited system but it’s not much cheaper,” he said. “This is still going to be very expensive.”

However the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, because of the new plan, could lead to a better and more positive outcome, said Culp.
“The Bush attitude was not interested in arms control or treaties with Russia, period,” said Culp. “They didn’t believe in agreements. Obama is much more focused on utilizing diplomacy and resume talks with real results on non-proliferation and arms control,” he said. “We have to engage with Russia, with Iran and with the United Nations because we can’t do it by ourselves,” said Culp.

Mikhail Margelov, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said in an interview that the new decision by the Obama administration will give a major boost toward relations between the two countries.

“For Russia, it is a victory for common sense,” Margelov said. “It’s another positive signal that we have received from Washington that makes the general climate very positive.”

Meanwhile Culp said next week is very important for the Obama administration as the sixth round of talks resume between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva. Culp said Obama also plans to address the United Nations General Assembly as well. Obama is also scheduled to meet privately with Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev in New York. Finally, in a meeting never before chaired by a U.S. president Obama plans to lead a discussion with the United Nation’s Security Council about non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, he said.