Vice President Joe Biden departs today on a three-day trip to central Europe that appears to be aimed at smoothing over relations with U.S. allies there worried by the Obama administration's decision to abandon plans for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The White House announced last month that it was switching gears and instead of the land-based system developed by the Bush administration, would pursue a sea-based system to target short and medium range missiles aimed at Europe.
The announcement caught the central European allies off guard and was met with great concern by the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic.
Biden will visit both those countries, along with Romania, and reassuring Polish and Czech leaders about the change in missile defense plans will likely be high on his agenda.
The Bush administration plan, announced in 2006, would have placed 10 land-based interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The system was intended as a defense against a missile threat from Iran, the Bush administration said.
The shift in policy by the Obama administration was viewed in the region as a gesture toward Russia, which had been very vocal in its opposition to the plan. The Russians believed the system would target its own weapons arsenal, not just that of Iran.
The White House said new intelligence assessments indicate that the threat of short- and medium-range missiles launched from Iran was increasing more quickly than anticipated, but Iran's capability to develop the technology for long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles was still further down the road.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said when the decision was announced last month.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at the time that the new plans would create "a missile defense system that protects a greater geographic area and addresses much more directly the threat that exists in the here and now, rather than something that was technologically a ways off."
Biden's trip is the first visit by a high-level U.S. official since the announcement and he is expected to tout the new plan as better for protecting European security.
"What you'll hear and what the vice president will talk about is a strong commitment to missile defense and to a better system, a more effective system, than the one we had originally proposed," said Tony Blinken, national security advisor to the vice president.
The White House said the changes to the missile defense system would reflect new and more immediate threats.
"It meets a threat that exists as opposed to one that's far off in the future. It's adaptive to future threats. It is based on technology that's already out there and working, and it will cover more of Europe faster than the previous program," Blinken said.
Biden will emphasize to the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic that the plan the Obama administration is pursuing will address the current threats with "technology that we know works and can be deployed faster than the previous system we've been talking about and cover all of NATO," Blinken said.