WASHINGTON — U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has identified European interceptor basing options as a potential point of divergence between his approach to missile defense and the policies of the incumbent.

Romney’s campaign website suggests that, if elected, he might resurrect plans to deploy “proven” interceptors in Poland should Iran’s ICBM development program progress more rapidly than expected. U.S. President Barack Obama scrapped that plan in 2009 in favor of an approach that relies initially on sea-based interceptors.

The United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East have a “vital interest” in an effective missile defense system in Eastern Europe to guard against the growing Iranian threat, Romney’s campaign website says. “As Iran’s ballistic missile capacity improves, it will endanger Europe and eventually the continental United States,” it says.

Given the traditionally strong support it enjoys among Republicans, missile defense is viewed as a likely beneficiary of Romney’s pledge to increase defense spending if elected. The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who invested heavily in missile defense, is well represented on Romney’s national security advisory team, and the challenger has criticized Obama for reducing spending in this area.

Charles Peña, senior fellow with the Independent Institute, a think tank here, said Romney, if elected, likely would substantially boost missile defense spending to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Investing in new missile defense capabilities is a less risky way to establish one’s bona fides as a national security hawk than some of the alternatives, such as pursuing regime change in unfriendly countries, he said.

Romney says he will fund a robust, multilayered missile defense system, but with the qualified exception of Europe has not specified how his program might differ from Obama’s.

The Romney campaign did not respond by press time to Space News questions regarding his positions on various aspects of missile defense.

The European shield has been a bone of contention for Republicans ever since Obama abandoned Bush’s plan to install two-stage variants of the existing Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor in Poland along with a tracking radar in the Czech Republic. The GMD is the primary U.S. territorial shield and the Bush administration sought to leverage that program to quickly field a system capable of defeating Iranian missiles aimed not only at Europe but also at the eastern United States.

Citing new intelligence that Iran’s ICBM development program was moving more slowly than previously believed, Obama in 2009 replaced the Bush plan with the so-called Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), which relies initially on existing Standard Missile 3 interceptors aboard U.S. Navy ships patrolling the Mediterranean. The PAA’s progressive approach calls for phased upgrades including installation of European land-based variants of the Standard Missile 3 that by 2020 could provide a measure of protection for the U.S. homeland.

On his campaign website page dedicated to Iran, Romney pledged to commit to the current president’s schedule for deploying European defenses, but with two caveats. “First, Mitt Romney would reserve the option of reverting to President Bush’s original plan of deploying proven interceptor technology in Poland if it becomes clear that Iran is making faster progress on developing long range missiles than the Obama administration’s plan assumes or if the new technologies on which the plan relies fail to materialize in a timely fashion,” the campaign said.

Second, the campaign said, Romney would not accept limits on U.S. missile defense capabilities to mollify Russia, which vehemently opposed Bush’s plan on the grounds that it would threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Romney reiterated that position during what was billed as a major defense and foreign policy speech Oct. 8 at the Virginia Military Institute. “I will implement effective missile defenses to protect against threats,” Romney said. “And on this, there will be no flexibility with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”

The Obama administration has gone to some lengths to reassure Russia that the PAA is not capable of engaging Russian missiles. During a public appearance with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in May, Obama was overheard telling his counterpart that he might have more flexibility on missile defense options after the November election.

A Washington insider with ties to the Romney campaign said the candidate is not planning to completely scrap the PAA, which according to a recent report by the U.S. National Research Council will protect European territory but is not the best option for shielding the eastern United States. But this source expressed reservations about Obama’s plan to develop an ICBM-killing variant of the Standard Missile 3, dubbed the Block 2B, which would be deployed by 2020 as part of the PAA. This source characterized the Block 2B as a major new development program fraught with challenges and said Romney is open to a GMD-based alternative.

This source also said Romney is open to establishing a third site for missile interceptors in the continental United States, which would be another departure from the Obama administration policy. The current GMD deployment scheme featuring interceptors in Alaska and California reflects an initial focus on the North Korean threat, and congressional Republicans have pressed for a third site in the northeastern United States to provide better protection against Iranian long-range missiles.

The National Research Council report said a third site is a promising option for protecting the eastern United States, provided it is outfitted with a new, high-speed interceptor and X-band radars.

The source said Romney has little inclination to pursue space-based interceptors, which in theory would have operational advantages over land-based systems but would be hugely expensive to develop and deploy.

Peña said the types of systems a Romney administration would pursue would depend on who he appoints to senior Pentagon positions, particular undersecretary of defense for policy.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...