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Associated Press, Published September 18 2009

Obama drops European defense plan

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Thursday shelved a Bush-era plan for an Eastern European missile defense shield that has been a major irritant in relations with Russia. He said a redesigned defensive system would be cheaper and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.

Anticipating criticism that he was weakening America’s security, Obama said repeatedly that this decision would provide more – not less – protection.

“It is more comprehensive than the previous program, it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland,” he said at the White House.

With the announcement, Washington scrapped what had become a diplomatically troublesome plan, and one the Pentagon says was ill-suited to the true threat from Iran. In its place would be a system the Pentagon contends will accomplish the original goal and more.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Iran’s changing capabilities drove the decision, but he acknowledged that the replacement system is likely to allay some of Russia’s concerns.

The change comes days before Obama will see Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for meetings at the United Nations and the Group of 20 nations economic summit.

The plan for a European shield was a darling of the Bush administration, which reached deals to install 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic – eastern European nations at Russia’s doorstep and once under Soviet sway. Moscow argued vehemently that the system would undermine the nuclear deterrent of its vast arsenal.

“Its concerns about our previous missile defense programs were entirely unfounded,” Obama said of Russia.

Obama phoned Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer Wednesday night and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk Thursday morning to alert them of his decision.

It is unclear whether any part of the future system would be in those nations, which agreed to host the Bush-planned shield at considerable cost in public opinion and their relations with Russia. Gates said they might, and said he hopes Poland will still approve a broad military cooperation agreement with the United States.

Criticism came immediately from Republicans.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking Republican in the House, said he would “work to overturn this wrong-headed policy.”

“Scrapping our missile defense effort in Europe has severe consequences for our diplomatic relations and weakens our national security,” Cantor said in a statement. “Our allies, especially Poland and the Czech Republic, deserve better and our people deserve smarter and safer.”

In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the shift “brilliant.” She said it takes into consideration the reevaluated threat from Iran, the newest technologies, and the U.S. relationship with NATO and with Russia.

The new plan would rely on a network of sensors and interceptor missiles based at sea, on land and in the air as a bulwark against Iranian short- and medium-range missiles.

The Bush missile shield plan, which never moved beyond the blueprint stage, would have been a deterrent for Iranian long-range missiles. But Russians worried that the system would be aimed at them.

Gates said that the initial stage of Obama’s alternate plan would deploy Aegis ships armed with interceptors, giving the military the ability to move the system around.

Another key to the near-term network would be new, more mobile radar used to detect and track short- and medium-range missiles if they were launched from Iran.

Gates said that a second phase of the plan would add a modified version of a land-based missile that would not be ready until 2015.

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