WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Polish officials are discussing building a base in Poland from which U.S. interceptors could shoot down long-range missiles as part of a global defense network, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
It would be the first American strategic missile defense site outside U.S. territory, and would be designed to defend all of Europe against intercontinental-range missiles _ primarily those launched from the Middle East.
No decision has been made to proceed with a missile defense base in Poland and alternative sites in Europe are a possibility. But the Pentagon official said Poland appears to be the most likely host country for the kind of American military installation that would have been unthinkable before Poland joined NATO in 1999.
The official discussed the matter only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Pentagon has made no public announcement of its discussions with Polish officials, although it has made known its extensive consultations in recent years with NATO allies on the threat posed by ballistic missiles.
On Monday, Poland's new prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, said he was opening a public debate on whether to host a U.S. missile defense base. He did not specifically say Washington was interested in installing ground-based interceptors of the sort that the Pentagon has recently installed in Alaska.
"This is an important issue for Poland, related to our security and to our cooperation with an important ally," Marcinkiewicz said.
He leads a new conservative government in Warsaw that took office on Oct. 31. The previous government had expressed concern that missile defense cooperation with Washington could harm relations with Russia, which had opposed Poland's decision to become a member of NATO.
The U.S. military has no permanent bases in Poland or other Central and Eastern European countries formerly aligned with the Soviet Union. The U.S. does have bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia such as Kyrgyzstan.
U.S. officials have been discussing with new NATO members Romania and Bulgaria the possibility of basing some U.S. troops there as part of a repositioning of U.S. forces around the world.
U.S. officials have been considering a number of possibilities for extending the American missile defense network to include Europe, although most of the focus has been on defenses against short-range missiles.
Long-range missiles are considered an emerging threat, in the view of Bush administration officials, because of the proliferation of technologies that would allow countries such as Iran and possibly Syria or Libya to build extended-range missiles. The threat is especially worrisome when coupled with nuclear warheads.
The current U.S. defense system against long-range missiles is limited mainly to an installation at Fort Greely, Alaska, where at least six missile interceptors are in underground silos, linked to a command and control system. It is designed mainly to shoot down missiles fired at U.S. territory from North Korea, with future expansion planned.
The Pentagon official who discussed the Polish option said that if a missile defense base were built there, it probably would be the only one needed to defend Europe against long-range missiles, although radars, other sensors and interceptors designed to combat shorter range missiles also would be needed for a complete defense.
The official estimated that a site in Poland would not be ready to begin operating before 2010. He offered no estimate on how much it might cost or when U.S. officials were likely to make a decision to proceed. Also undetermined is whether the site would be controlled jointly by U.S. and Polish forces or possibly with a NATO role.