In a hastily-arranged statement before cameras, President Obama explained why he has decided to scrap President George W. Bush's plans for permanent missile defense program to be based in the Czech Republic and Poland, opting instead for a more mobile system that he said would "provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies."
Saying that "Iran's ballistic missile program poses a significant threat," the president said he was committed to "strong missile defense systems which are adaptable to the threats of the 21st century" and "utilizes technology that is both proven and cost effective."
After what he called a "comprehensive assessment of our missile defense program in Europe, the president said he "approved the unanimous recommendations of my secretary of defense and my Joint Chiefs of Staff" to go forward with the new system, which the administration says will be made up of increasingly-capable land- and sea-based missile interceptors, primarily upgraded versions of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) and a range of censors in Europe.
The system will begin to be phased in within the next two years, with the final phase to be completed by 2020.
The President said the system is "more comprehensive than the previous program" and "deploys capabilities that are proven and cost-effective."
The President's general-election opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC News that he had not been briefed on the anouncement, and he wasn't exactly sure he knew what constituted the new more mobile system.
"I haven't heard of it," McCain said. The new system, he added, "is certainly unproven technology."
But, Mr. McCain said, "most important, we made a commitment to the Czech and Polish governments. Now we go and tell them we're abrogating that agreement? Is that the way you treat friends and allies?"
McCain called the announcement "ham-fisted" and said he was concerned that the move "can only be construed in some quarters — Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic and others — as acceding to the threats and bullying of Vladimir Putin."
The White House denied that, with press secretary Robert Gibbs saying the Russia had nothing to do with the decision, and that allies would appreciate the decision once they learned more about the system.
President Obama said the decision was rooted in two factors.
"First, we have updated our intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs, which emphasizes the threat posed by Iran's short and medium-range missiles, which are capable of reaching Europe," he said.
Second, the president continued, "we have made specific and proven advances in our missile defense technology, particularly with regard to land- and sea-based interceptors and the sensors that support them."
McCain said he was confused by the support for the new plan by Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mullen.
"In all due respect, before November 3 they were in favor of this (previous) agreement and largely in favor of it," he said.
President Obama said this morning that his administration has "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 … We welcome Russians' cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests, even as we continue to — we continue our shared efforts to end Iran's illicit nuclear program."