Some U.S. lawmakers are exploring the potential for speeding up missile-interceptor deployments in Europe amid concerns over recent Russian aggression.
The United States is currently planning on fielding modernized Standard Missile 3 Block 1B interceptors on warships home-ported in Spain and at a base in Romania beginning in 2015. A more-capable missile, the Block 2A interceptor, is slated for deployment in Poland starting in 2018. But that time schedule might not be fast enough for some members of Congress, who are eager to send a deterrence message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, following his annexation last month of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Referring to those deployment plans, Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) at a Wednesday Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing observed that while the missile interceptors were intended to protect NATO territory against a missile strike from the Middle East, they were "of significant concern to Mr. Putin as well."
The Obama administration has repeatedly emphasized that the antimissile systems planned for European installations do not have the technical capacity to challenge Russian strategic ballistic missiles. Rather, the U.S. interceptors are designed to target short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, Washington says.
Moscow is forbidden under a 1987 nuclear arms control treaty with the United States from possessing any missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. However, serious concerns have been raised in recent weeks in the United States about Russia's compliance with the accord.
At a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing last week, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) asked the head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency whether, "as a consequence of the Ukrainian activity by Russia," deployment of missile interceptors in Poland could be hastened if more funding were provided.
"We've analyzed that," agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring responded. "It can be done quicker if money were available, but the budget request supports a 2018 fielding at this point."
Donnelly pressed the issue further in questioning M. Elaine Bunn, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, on Wednesday about possible new talks with Romania and Poland.
"Have we talked to them about moving up those timelines?" the Indiana Democrat asked. "Mr. Putin apparently has no interest in timelines. And so, you know, he's not going to wait for 2018. ... Are we taking a look at our timelines and other things in regards to that?"
Bunn said there have been "no discussions at this point" with NATO partners on the matter.
Testifying alongside Bunn on Wednesday, Syring said that speeding up the timetable for standing up the Polish missile site -- the facility that draws most Russian concern -- would depend on the development progress of its next-generation Block 2A interceptor. Accelerating the pace of work on the Romania site, however, would largely be a matter of funding, he suggested.
"All of that [military construction] funding is mostly in the [fiscal 2016] time frame," Syring said. "So to go faster, it would require money in '15 in terms of the technical feasibility of accelerating."