WASHINGTON — The latest U.S. plan for a European missile shield features a radar system that would be deployed next year, possibly in Turkey, to cue interceptors that initially would be based at sea, with upgraded variants to be installed on the ground in Romania and later in Poland, according to leaked U.S. government documents and congressional testimony by senior Pentagon officials.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan for defending Europe against ballistic missiles gained a new level of legitimacy Nov. 19 when the 28-member NATO alliance agreed to a new strategic concept that for the first time includes defending its territories from ballistic missile attacks. Details of that plan have begun to emerge following the Nov. 28 disclosure of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks and a Dec. 1 hearing held by the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Obama’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to European missile defense would be the centerpiece of the new NATO mission. Announced in late 2009, the PAA replaced the previous administration’s plan to place 10 long-range interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic. That concept drew sharp criticism from Russia, which viewed the system as a threat to its nuclear deterrent. The PAA is expected to be deployed several years sooner to address the most pressing threats: large numbers of small- and medium-range ballistic missiles being deployed by Iran, U.S. officials say.

The first of four PAA phases would begin in early 2011 when a U.S. Navy Aegis ship equipped with Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 1A interceptors is deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean, Jim Miller, principal undersecretary of defense for policy, said during the hearing.

In addition, the first phase calls for deployment of an Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance system to Southern Europe. Miller said the Pentagon expects to meet its 2011 deployment goal but that no decision has been made on a host nation.

During a January trip to Ankara, Turkey, however, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pressed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on an agreement to host the radar, according to a Jan. 26 U.S. State Department cable posted on WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has started to release what it says are more than 250,000 State Department communications, many of which are classified “Secret.”

The United States has told Turkey that a decision not to host the radar is essentially a decision to opt out of missile defense coverage, based on the physics and geometry of the missile defense shield, the cable said. Turkey’s primary concern is damaging its relationship with Iran, which the United States has often singled out as a “rogue state” that could threaten the entire region with ballistic missiles. Erdogan, in an earlier meeting with Obama, said the missile defense system would have to be implemented in a NATO context in order to minimize the political cost Turkey would bear, the cable said.

During another trip to Ankara Feb. 10, Gates told Turkish Minister of National Defense Mehmet Vecdi Gonul that other countries in Southeast Europe might be interested in hosting the radar, but Turkey is the optimal site. Gonul said he considered the PAA to be better than the previous plan because it could cover Turkey, and discussions about hosting the radar were ongoing within the Turkish government, according to a Feb. 16 cable.

Also disclosed in the leaked State Department cables:

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected a U.S. offer to drop its European missile defense plans entirely in exchange for Russia’s help in pressuring Iran to end its nuclear weapons program during an April 2009 meeting with a congressional delegation led by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
  • Then-French Defense Minister Hervé Morin expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of a missile defense system deployed to defend European populations during a February meeting with Gates. Gates rebutted the arguments, noting that missile defense contributes to deterrence.

During the Dec. 1 hearing, meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, expressed frustration that the Pentagon has not informed Congress of the total funding and inventory requirements for the PAA. This information is being calculated in the Joint Capability Mix-3 study that is being conducted by the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, said Navy Rear Adm. Archer Macy, the organization’s director. The study is expected to be completed in March and will be delivered to Congress shortly thereafter, Macy said.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is on track to develop and procure the missile defense assets needed for all four phases of the PAA on time, said Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the MDA’s director. The second phase of the plan, to be implemented by 2015, calls for the installation of 24 SM-3 Block 1B interceptors in Romania. Both the land- and sea-based missiles would be guided by a new fire-control system, Aegis 4.0.1, that would be deployed by that time. The Pentagon by 2015 expects to have an inventory of 292 SM-3 interceptors, both Block 1A and Block1B, according to Miller’s written testimony.

The third PAA phase, targeted for completion by 2018, includes the placement of 24 next-generation SM-3 Block 2A interceptors in Poland managed by the Aegis 5.1 system. This phase would be the first to incorporate missile tracking data from a planned satellite constellation called the Precision Tracking Space System that the MDA is studying. This phase also would use data from unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with infrared sensors.

The fourth phase, to be complete by 2020, would feature the Next Generation Aegis Missile, formerly known as SM-3 Block 2B. This would be the first interceptor deployed in the PAA capable of defeating ICBMs headed for the United States.