Missile Defense Dominates Gates Meetings in Czech Republic
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Oct. 23, 2007 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters after meeting today with Czech leaders he’s confident negotiations to place a radar here for a missile defense system are on track and likely to wrap up within the next few months.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the Defense Minister of the Czech Republic H.E. Mrs. Vlasta Parkanova review the troops during an arrival ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Prague, Czech Republic, Oct. 23, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The proposed X-band radar dominated Gates’ meetings today with Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Gates told reporters during a news conference following the sessions.
“I believe we have made and continue to make good progress,” Gates said, expressing confidence that the negotiations will wrap up within the next few months.
A sticking point -- but one Gates said won’t stop the forward momentum – is Russian opposition to the proposed system that would include 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as well as the radar here.
Gates told reporters today he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “made quite clear” during their recent visit to Russia “that we will continue our negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland, and assuming those negotiations are successfully concluded, we will begin the deploying of these sites.”
The secretary and other U.S. officials have emphasized that the proposed system would be designed to protect Europe and the United States from ballistic missile attacks launched from the Middle East.
Gates said he told Czech leaders today about his and Rice’s efforts during their Moscow visit to reassure the Russians the system wouldn’t threat them. “We continue to encourage the Russians to partner with us in missile defense and continue our efforts to reassure them that these facilities are not aimed at Russia and could benefit Russia,” he said.
As part of that effort, Gates said, he and Rice offered two possible ways to “encourage transparency and greater information on the part of Russia as to what is going on at these sites.”
One option might be to allow Russian observers at the sites, he said, but Gates said the Czech Republic has to agree to the measure. “Let me repeat for emphasis: Nothing will be done in this regard without the consent of the Czech government,” he said.
Topolanek declined to comment when asked by a reporter if his government would consider such a measure.
Another way to increase transparency about the system might be to tie its activation in to “definitive proof of the threat,” including Iranian missile tests, Gates said. “The idea was that we would go forward with the negotiations, … complete the negotiations, … develop the sites (and) build the sites, but perhaps delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran,” he said.
That proposal isn’t yet fully developed, he said.
The United States asked the Czech government in January to begin negotiations about the proposed radar, conceivably to be built at a military base between Prague and Pilsen. The first round of negotiations with the Czechs took place in May, and the second in September.
Discussions are expected to resume later this month, initially focusing on a status-of-forces agreement to govern up to 200 U.S. troops who would operate and secure the system here. Those talks would lead up to the next round of negotiations about the missile defense site early next month.
The goal is for the system to reach initial operating capability in 2011 and to become fully operational by mid-2013, a senior defense official traveling with Gates told reporters.
Although Russia objects to missile defenses in Eastern Europe, the official said, it acknowledges that Iran is pursing a ballistic missile program. “The difference is over timelines, how soon the ballistic missiles with the range that could reach the United States or greater parts of Europe can be achieved,” he said. “The Russians say later rather than sooner. We say sooner rather than later.”
Iran may be the most troubling, but not the only threat in the region, the official said. Intelligence indicates that “about 20 countries or actors are pursing ballistic missile technology,” he said. Of these, Iran is the most advanced in its pursuit of this weaponry. “But even if Iran was to turn in all its missiles (and) all its technology, there would still be concerns and threats emanating from the Middle East region,” he said.
Gates said today he ultimately hopes the proposed missile defense system becomes part of a larger effort that addresses the full range of potential threats. He said he told Czech leaders he’ll bring up the issue at the NATO informal ministerial conference that begins tomorrow in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, and hopes NATO will take formal action on the concept during its 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania.
“It is our hope that one of the outcomes of the Bucharest Summit next year will be a resolution to go forward and develop short- and medium-range missile defenses for NATO that would go together with the American longer-range protection,” he said. “Our goal is an integrated system that would protect all the members of the alliance against threats such as from Iranian ballistic missile.”
Gates said he’s confident that both foreign and defense ministers within NATO support the approach.
Tomas Pojar, the Czech Republic’s deputy foreign minister, told reporters today negotiations are expected to continue without a hitch, but that getting passage of the measure by the Czech parliament “will not be easy.”
Any resistance to the measure comes from politicians and the media, not the Czech people, he said. “The public is not interested in the issue,” he said.
Pojar cited three reasons the Czech Republic agreed to enter negotiations over the radar: its historical ties to the United States, its recognition of the ballistic missile threat, and its desire for a U.S. and NATO presence in Central Europe.
The Czech Republic has a “historic, moral reason,” for supporting the United States and hasn’t forgotten that “the U.S. has saved us several times in the past century,” Pojar said.
Another factor is the increasing likelihood that a weapon of mass destruction could be launched from the Middle East. Pojar said there’s a “30 to 50 percent chance” such a weapon could be ready for a potential attack on Europe as soon as 2015. “We should be ready for that scenario,” he said.
Pojar said there’s also a geopolitical reason for a U.S. presence in Central Europe, and said the Czech Republic welcomes other countries, too.
The Czechs joined NATO in 1999 and have been seeking to expand their participation in NATO and European Union activities. Failing to move forward with a missile defense system would weaken NATO and leave Europe vulnerable, he said.
“Our future depends on a strong NATO and strong trans-Atlantic ties,” he said.
Gates praised Czech support for the missile defense system effort as another step in a longstanding relationship between the two allies.
“For a number of years, the U.S. and the Czech Republic have cooperated on a wide variety of security issues,” Gates said. “And today, facing new challenges, our relationship is as strong as it has ever been.”