— With the huge foreign and domestic challenges facing U.S. President-elect BarackObama, observers are not surprised he has expressed little more than generalities regarding his positions on missile defense. But decisions on the proposed European missile defense site and the future size and scope of the nation’s missile defense portfolio loom large for the new administration.

Support for missile defense was a linchpin of U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign. Since Bush called for an initial ballistic missile defense capability to be deployed in Alaska in 2002, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has fielded 24 ground-based interceptors there and in California; 18 Navy ships capable of tracking and intercepting short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; three upgraded early warning radars; and two transportable X-band radars. Stockpiles of missiles for theater-based systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Patriot missile systems also continued to grow during that time.

Though it has been an $11 billion and controversial activity in recent years, missile defense was not at the forefront of the 2008 presidential election. It is no secret, however, that Republicans tend to more fully embrace the idea than Democrats. Obama’s campaign summarized its views on the activity in a position paper that said an “Obama-Biden administration will support missile defense, but ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective; and, most importantly, does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public.”

By all accounts, the most pressing missile defense decision awaiting the new administration will be whether to continue with the Bush administration’s effort to place 10 interceptor missiles in and a tracking-radar site in the . The plans were endorsed recently by NATO and have been approved by leaders of both host nations, but not by their respective parliaments. has vehemently opposed the plan as a threat to its national security.

While some analysts believe a go-or-no-go decision must be made early in the new presidency, others said Obama, who has not tipped his hand one way or another, could effectively kick the decision a few years down the road to see how things develop.

“I doubt we will pull the plug totally,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank here. “[The Obama administration] might not want to make a decision too early, and they don’t want to give the sense they can prevent this just by making a bunch of noise. They could put off this decision for a year or two to watch what happens with the threat and recast the conversation with without giving them a veto.”

One former congressional aide said ratification of the agreement by the Polish and Czech parliaments would make it extremely difficult for the to pull back completely, especially given NATO support for the plan.

“If they want to walk back, they could deploy radar but not the interceptors and instead field ships [with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system] for the protection of without the strategic ground-based missiles,” the source said. “Or the administration could punt by funding the system’s research and development without making a deployment decision at all.”

Conservative thinkers at the Heritage Foundation in argued against these approaches, saying moving forward with the European plan of record would send a signal that the United States intends to reinforce its relationships with its allies. Heritage analysts Baker Spring, Peter Brookes and James Jay Carafano urged the incoming administration not to place a moratorium on the plans – as has been advocated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example – in a Dec. 3 paper titled, “Moving Forward with Ballistic Missile Defense: A Memo to President-Elect Obama.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration also will have to decide whether to continue the unprecedented support for missile defense programs that the Bush administration has provided for the past eight years. Most observers said missile defense budgets probably have reached their high-water mark, but cutting more than $1 billion out of the roughly $11 billion spent annually by the MDA and U.S. Army is unlikely. And most agreed that next-generation systems like the Airborne Laser and Kinetic Energy Interceptor are the only ones in serious jeopardy.

“There has been suggestion in the press that the new administration might come in and try to cut 50 percent of the [missile defense] budget to around what it was during the administration,” the former aide said. “They’ve got it all wrong, and that doesn’t reflect realities of today. These are not research and development programs anymore, and missile defense has little opposition in Congress.”

Victoria Sampson, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information here, said she expects Obama’s approach to reflect some of the missile defense criticisms voiced by Democrats on Capitol Hill. “I think we could see an effort by this administration to pull back from some of the more pie-in-the-sky efforts and put an increased focus on testing and improving the current systems,” she said.