President Obama this morning said the decision to adjust plans for a missile defense shield in Europe have been driven by updated intelligence on Iran's missile system and significant improvements in missile defense technology.
The administration announced it is scrapping plans to base long-range missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic in favor of a more flexible, shorter-range system that would counter potential short- or mid-range Iranian missile threats to Europe. Under the new program, instead of focusing on a ground-based system, the United States will increasingly deploy sea- and land-based missile interceptors.
"As commander in chief, I'm committed to doing everything in my power to advance our national security, and that includes strengthening our defenses against any and all threats to our people, our troops, and our friends and allies around the world," Obama said today in a hastily arranged news conference. "The best way to responsibly advance our security and the security of our allies is to deploy a missile defense system that best responds to the threats that we face, and that utilizes technology that is both proven and cost effective."
The White House says the new approach will provide more efficiency and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the original plan devised by the Bush administration, which placed an emphasis on defending against long-range missiles.
Officials say a new threat assessment suggests that the Iranian missile threat to Europe is focused more on short and medium range missiles rather than from long-range missiles currently under development.
According to a fact sheet provided by the White House, "This approach is based on an assessment of the Iranian missile threat, and a commitment to deploy technology that is proven, cost-effective, and adaptable to an evolving security environment."
The move came as a surprise to many, but will surely be welcomed by Russia, which has long opposed the plan originally conceived under the Bush administration. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his predecessor Vladimir Putin had opposed the U.S. plan to base components in Poland and the Czech Republic, claiming they were designed to counter Russia instead of Iran, a charge the U.S. denies.
"We've also repeatedly made clear to Russia that its concerns about our previous missile defense programs were entirely unfounded. Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran's ballistic missile program and that continues to be our focus and the basis of the program that we're announcing today," Obama said today.
Medvedev said today's announcement signals a positive step toward U.S.-Russia cooperation.
"We appreciate the U.S. president's conscientious approach in realizing our agreements," Medvedev said in a statement on Russian TV. "I am prepared to continue our dialogue."
The White House today said there is no quid pro quo with Russia.
"This is not about Russia. This is about protecting our homeland," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Critics Doubt New Missile Defense Program
In Washington, Republicans panned the idea, with Sen. John McCain, R-Aria., calling the decision "rushed" and "seriously misguided."
"The agreement was made and ratified without discussion and proper process," McCain said on the Senate floor today. "This is not the way to do business. I think it sends the wrong signal, to the Russians, and our friends and allies."
"I believe the consequences of this decision may be, albeit unintentionally, encourage more aggression from the Russians," said the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said concerns of a lessened emphasis on missile defense are unfounded.
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," Gates said today.
"I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies and eventually for our homeland than the program I recommended almost three years ago. "
New Missile Defense System
As originally planned under the Bush administration the missile defense plan would have placed a missile radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland. Both countries had actively sought the placement of the system in their countries.
The U.S. already has long-range missile interceptors at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that are focused on a potential North Korean long-range missile threat.
The timing of today's announcement is noteworthy. Next week Obama will spend the better part of four days in New York City, much of it at the United Nations where on Thursday he will personally chair a Security Council Summit on non-proliferation.
The new missile defense plan for Europe will be installed in phases over the next decade and rely on a sea- and land-based system using SM-3 missiles. These missiles have already been installed on as many as 20 of the Navy's Aegis equipped destroyers and cruisers. The missiles are much cheaper to build than long-range interceptors and have been deployed for North Korean missile launches.
An X-band radar system that can accurately track missile launches, similar to those already in use in the western Pacific, will likely be located in one of the small countries in the Caucasus region, located north of Iran and south of Russia.
By 2011 three of these ships will be stationed in the Mediterranean and the North Sea to provide coverage against a short and intermediate missile threat. That deployment will be six to seven years faster than relying on the ground missile interceptors that were to have been placed in Poland.
By 2015, upgraded land-based SM-3 missiles will complement the sea-based defenses as they are placed on the European continent. Both Gates and Cartwright said Poland and the Czech Republic have been offered the opportunity to host these new sites.
Ultimately, by 2020 a full system should be in place that would be able to provide protection from long-range Iranian missiles as well.
ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.