WASHINGTON -- Top Obama administration officials in recent days have held talks with Polish government leaders about the United States’ decision to again alter plans to deploy missile defense systems in Europe.
Washington is attempting to limit any political fallout with its longtime ally over the decision to not deploy planned next-generation ICBM interceptors in Poland.
Nearly four years ago, the Obama administration surprised Warsaw by declaring it would cancel a Bush-era initiative to field 10 long-range missile interceptors on Polish territory. The lack of a heads-up prior to the September 2009 announcement ruffled feathers in the Polish government, which had taken a political risk in agreeing to host the interceptors over strong objections from Russia.
Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorski shortly prior to the March 15 announcement that the U.S. military would not develop the Standard Missile 3 Block 2B interceptor, which was to have been fielded at Redzikowo around 2022 with the primary purpose of protecting the mainland United States against any ICBMs launched by Iran.
A U.S. plan to in 2018 field a radar unit and earlier-generation SM-3 Block 2A interceptors on Polish territory is still in place.
When Warsaw first agreed to the George W. Bush administration’s request to host the 10 interceptors, it was “subjected then to very sharp criticism in Europe, in particular for allegedly endangering European stability,” Polish Institute of International Affairs Director Marcin Zaborowski said at an antimissile forum in Washington earlier this month.
Polish leaders withstood that criticism as well as a warning by Russia that it would deploy short-range ballistic missiles to the Kaliningrad as the political price to pay for having a U.S. military footprint in their nation. Warsaw then accepted its revised missile defense role in the Obama phased adaptive approach.
Vice President Joseph Biden discussed missile defense with Polish President Bronisław Komorowski in Rome on March 18. The two men agreed on “the need to meet evolving missile threats,” according to a release from the U.S. Embassy in Poland that did not detail what Komorowski’s response was to the new plan from Washington.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday called his Polish opposite, Tomasz Siemoniak, and “expressed his appreciation for Poland’s understanding of changes to the European Phased Adaptive Array missile defense system,” according to a read-out from the telephone call, which did not provide any hints at the Polish defense chief’s response to this gratitude.
The Pentagon said North Korea’s recent progress toward wielding a long-range ballistic missile is behind the decision to reallocate funding intended for antimissile systems in Poland to the deployment of 14 additional long-range interceptors in Alaska.
“Secretary Hagel reassured Poland of the United States’ continuing commitment to European missile defense,” the release stated. “The secretary reiterated that plans for Phases One through Three remain unchanged.”
The Polish Embassy in Washington on Monday referred questions regarding the latest U.S. turnabout to a March 15 statement from the Foreign Ministry. The statement was carefully neutral and telegraphed neither support nor displeasure with the decision.
[Polish Prime Minister] Donald Tusk's cabinet has realistically assessed that the implementation of [missile defense in] successive stages will be determined by the changing international security situation,” the ministry said.
Warsaw accepts that it is “for the United States to decide” whether to move forward with the final phase of the administration’s plan for European missile defense, Zaborowsk said. “What is important from our point of view is that the decision concerning the final shape of Phase Four shouldn’t weaken defense of Europe.”
The SM-3 missile interceptors planned for fielding on and around Europe in coming years would provide protection against short, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles fired from the Middle East. These systems will “provide as good a defense of all of Europe as is possible with foreseeable technology,” one-time Defense Undersecretary for Policy Walter Slocombe said at the forum.
Even if European and particularly Polish protection from ballistic missile threats from the Middle East is not impacted by the decision against developing the Block 2B interceptor, there is still fear Washington could decide to further water down its antimissile plans for Poland.
“We can imagine, therefore, that it will now be easier for the Americans to abandon the missile defense project in Poland entirely, or to eliminate it right after its construction … and to shift its tasks to the Aegis cruisers, which can be outfitted with the same kind of missiles,” said Tomasz Szatkowski, Polish defense issues adviser to the European Parliament legal committee, in an interview with the Polish newspaper Nasz Dziennik that was transcribed by the BBC.
Poland was interested in hosting the Block 2B missile as it saw its “presence of a kind that is strategically key for U.S. security, because then we will also naturally be more important,” Szatkowski said. “Missile defense in Poland solely as an element of NATO defense policy in Europe, and in a limited scope at that is no longer so crucial for the United States.”
Partly in response to uncertainty about the reliability of U.S. missile defense plans, Warsaw intends to build a national air and missile defense system that it would link-up to NATO.