Correction to This Article
This article misstated the first name of the commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet. He is Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr.

U.S. nears key step in European defense shield against Iranian missiles

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

The U.S. military is on the verge of activating a partial missile shield over southern Europe, part of an intensifying global effort to build defenses against Iranian missiles amid a deepening impasse over the country's nuclear ambitions.

Pentagon officials said they are nearing a deal to establish a key radar ground station, probably in Turkey or Bulgaria. Installation of the high-powered X-band radar would enable the first phase of the shield to become operational next year.

At the same time, the U.S. military is working with Israel and allies in the Persian Gulf to build and upgrade their missile defense capabilities. The United States installed a radar ground station in Israel in 2008 and is looking to place another in an Arab country in the gulf region. The radars would provide a critical early warning of any launches from Iran, improving the odds of shooting down a missile.

The missile defenses in Europe, Israel and the gulf are technically separate and in different stages of development. But they are all designed to plug into command-and-control systems operated by, or with, the U.S. military. The Israeli radar, for example, is operated by U.S. personnel and is already functional, feeding information to U.S. Navy ships operating in the Mediterranean.

Taken together, these initiatives constitute an attempt to contain Iran and negate its growing ability to aim missiles -- perhaps one day armed with a nuclear warhead -- at targets throughout the Middle East and Europe, including U.S. forces stationed there.

The concept of a missile shield began with former president Ronald Reagan, who first described his vision of a defense against a Soviet nuclear attack in his "Star Wars" speech in 1983. Its development accelerated during the George W. Bush administration, which saw missile defense as a way to deter emerging nuclear powers in Iran and North Korea.

It has expanded further under President Obama, despite the skepticism he expressed during the 2008 campaign about the feasibility and affordability of Bush's plan for a shield in Europe.

In September, Obama announced that he was changing Bush's approach. Instead of abandoning the idea, he directed the Pentagon to construct a far more extensive and flexible missile defense system in Europe that will be built in phases between now and 2020.

The missile defense plan for Europe has factored into the Senate's debate over a new U.S.-Russia arms reduction treaty that would place fresh limits on the two countries' nuclear arsenals. Russia has strongly opposed the European shield, and some Republican lawmakers have charged that the treaty could constrain the project. Obama administration officials have dismissed the concerns.

Ships add mobility

Since last year, the Navy has been deploying Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers equipped with ballistic missile defense systems to patrol the Mediterranean Sea. The ships, featuring octagonal Spy-1 radars and arsenals of Standard Missile-3 interceptors, will form the backbone of Obama's shield in Europe.

Unlike fixed ground-based interceptors, which were the mainstay of the Bush missile defense plan for Europe, Aegis ships are mobile and can easily move to areas considered most at risk of attack.

Another advantage is that Aegis ships can still be used for other missions, such as hunting pirates or submarines, instead of waiting for a missile attack that may never materialize.

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