President Obama said Wednesday he has shelved a missile defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic because a "new approach" will provide better protection against possible attacks by Iran and other rogue states.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe" will be "smarter, safer, and swifter" than the plan authorized by predecessor George W. Bush, Obama said during brief remarks at the White House.
The decision is yet another reversal of a Bush administration policy, though Obama said he agreed with Bush's assessment that Iran's missile program poses a threat.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spoke later at the Pentagon, said the revamped missile defense system will "enhance our ability to respond to the most immediate threats." Gates criticized reports that the administration is "scrapping" the idea of missile defense in Europe.
USA TODAY reported in March that the government had already spent $144 billion on missile defense since 1985 and that many of the tests of the system did not work.
The type of ground-based interceptors that would be deployed in Europe failed to hit targets in five of 13 tests, according to the Pentagon. They have not demonstrated an ability to detect decoys, the Government Accountability Office says.
Obama's decision is sure to please Russia, which objected vehemently to having the system so close to its borders. The Polish and Czech governments had lobbied for the missiles, though many citizens in both countries also opposed the plan. Both countries agreed on a final basing plan last year after the United States promised them additional military aid.
Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the initial missile shield plan was designed to deter threats from Iran and build closer ties to Eastern Europe.
McCain, who lost to Obama in last year's election, said the decision "has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe," at a time when nations there "are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism."
Former Pentagon testing chief Philip Coyle, a longtime skeptic of the Bush program, told USA TODAY that Obama's plan "actually produces more defense sooner than the program it replaces."
Coyle said the Obama proposal defends against short and medium range missiles, which Iran has, rather than long rang missiles, which it does not. And it relies on existing technology that is proven to work, while the previous plan called on speculative technology with a spotty testing record.
Also, the Obama plan would cover all of Europe, while the Bush plan did not, Coyle said.
The White House fact sheet on the plan says that starting around 2011, "phase one" of the new plan will include "increasingly capable sea- and land-based missile interceptors … and a range of sensors in Europe to defend against the growing ballistic missile threat from Iran."
Phases two through four expand on the theme through 2020.
"This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems, and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program," Obama said.
He said the United States will continue to work on defense matters with the Czech Republic and Poland and "reaffirmed our deep and close ties."
He also said he had made it clear to Russian officials that their concerns about the previous missile program were without merit.
"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.