The Air Force general who runs the Pentagon's missile defense projects said Wednesday that American interests would be "severely hurt" if President-elect Obama decided to halt plans developed by the Bush administration to install missile interceptors in Eastern Europe.
Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a group of reporters that he is awaiting word from Obama's transition team on their interest in receiving briefings.
During the campaign, Obama was not explicit about his intentions with regard to missile defense. The program has tended to draw less support from Democrats over the years, particularly during the Reagan presidency when it was seen as a "Star Wars" effort to erect an impenetrable shield against nuclear missile attack from the Soviet Union. More recently the project has been scaled back, although it has again created an East-West divide by stirring Russian opposition to the proposed European link.
Obama has said it would be prudent to "explore the possibility of deploying missile defense systems in Europe," in light of what he called active efforts by Iran to develop ballistic missiles as well as nuclear weapons.
But Obama expressed some skepticism about the technical capability of U.S. missile defenses. He said that if elected his administration would work with NATO allies to develop anti-missile technologies.
Obering, who is leaving his post next week after more than four years in charge, said in the interview that his office has pulled together information for a presentation to the Obama team, if asked.
"What we have discovered is that a lot of the folks that have not been in this administration seem to be dated, in terms of the program," he said. "They are kind of calibrated back in the 2000 time frame and we have come a hell of a long way since 2000. Our primary objective is going to be just, frankly, educating them on what we have accomplished, what we have been able to do and why we have confidence in what we are doing."
Asked whether he meant that Obama or his advisers had an outdated view of missile defense, Obering said he was speaking more generally about people who have not closely followed developments in this highly technical field.
A key question for the new president will be whether to proceed with the Bush administration's plans to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic. That system is on track to be ready for use by 2014, Obering said. It is strongly opposed by Russia, which sees it as an unwelcome military threat close to its borders; the Bush administration says it is needed to defend European allies against an emerging missile threat from Iran.
Obering said he is confident in the technology needed to make the European leg of the missile defense system work.
"In terms of any recommendations for the future, I would say that if we were to walk away from these proposed deployments to Europe, that it would severely hurt, number one, our ability to protect our deployed forces in that region and our allies and friends from what we see as an emerging threat. Number two, I think it would severely undermine U.S. leadership in NATO."
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