WASHINGTON, May 9 — The Bush administration’s proposal to construct two American missile defense bases in Europe has roiled relations with Russia and provoked sharp questioning even in NATO capitals, where critics ask: With the system still unproven and, under the best of circumstances, years from completion, why rush construction now?
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Now the Democratic majority in Congress is moving toward budget cuts aimed at slowing the administration’s plans to break ground this year on one of the bases, in Poland. Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the committee would approve “only prudent investmentsï¿½? in what she labeled “high-risk, immature programsï¿½? to shoot down long-range missiles, like the system advocated for Europe.
The administration wants to begin digging silos for 10 interceptors in Poland and laying the foundation for a tracking radar in the Czech Republic this year to defend Europe against what it calls a looming long-range ballistic missile threat from Iran. But in a vote scheduled for Wednesday, the House committee was expected to approve only a study of the “political, technical, operational, force structure and budgetary aspectsï¿½? of the European sites.
The bill, still under consideration late Wednesday, would cut $160 million from funds proposed for construction in Poland, as part of $764 million in cuts from the $8.9 billion the administration has sought for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency in 2008.
A cut of $160 million would prevent breaking ground on the interceptor silos in Poland, while leaving funds to move forward with buying the 10 interceptor missiles and installing the radar for the Czech Republic, Congressional officials say.
The bill would also face a vote by the full House. Similar discussions are under way in the Senate, where the new Democratic majority is also skeptical of missile defense.
Administration officials say the proposals for two antimissile bases in former Soviet satellites in Central Europe are a modest but important step toward establishing a system of high-technology global sentries capable of shooting down warheads fired off by an adversary with a limited arsenal of ballistic missiles.
But in a critical assessment of the missile defense program issued in March, the Government Accountability Office noted that the antimissile program “cannot yet be fully assessed because there have been too few flight tests conducted to anchor the models and simulations that predict overall system performance.ï¿½?
In an interview, Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, took issue with the report, saying, “I do believe we are on the right path.ï¿½? The American military is moving at full speed to prove that the system is capable of destroying a long-range enemy warhead in an environment that he says mirrors a real-world threat, and has its next test scheduled along the West Coast for the end of this month.
Even so, the administration says the United States must begin pouring concrete soon to have the European system operating by 2012 — to counter an Iranian long-range missile ability that American intelligence warns will be reached between 2010 and 2015. Pentagon officials have said that the emerging European system can also incorporate improvements in technology.
Last month, the administration opened a campaign in which the secretaries of state and defense, along with a team of other senior officials and generals, canvassed European capitals, including Moscow, to explain the limited nature of the system under consideration.
Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said recently that the missile defense system in Europe was intended to help protect American forces serving in NATO nations, and to help guarantee the security of those allies, at a time when the United States was moving ahead with its own system of missiles and radars to guard American territory.
“The fact is alliance security should be indivisible,ï¿½? Mr. Fried added. “And if Europe is vulnerable to Iranian missiles, that means we’re insecure as well.ï¿½?
Russia has little to fear from the bases proposed for the former Soviet satellites, American officials say, because the limited missile defense architecture under consideration — the 10 interceptors — is not even a tiny shadow of the Reagan-era “Star Warsï¿½? program that dreamt of an impenetrable missile shield. The price tag of the European system is small by comparison, at $3.5 billion.
Kremlin leaders rejected a peace offering of American-Russian cooperation on missile defense that was carried to Moscow by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, but Russian leaders agreed to set up a joint commission to examine the fine print of the plan. The Russians also demanded a high-level session to debate details of proposed missile defenses in Europe, which is likely to lead to a meeting in September between Mr. Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their Russian counterparts, Mr. Fried said.
As discussions with the Russians accelerate, administration and military officials are expected to emphasize their position that the location, size and design of the missile defense sites in Central Europe clearly illustrate that the system poses no threat to Moscow’s hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads.
General Obering said the sites in Central Europe were not positioned to intercept Russia’s strategic nuclear missiles, as they would fly over the North Pole, and not over Europe, if fired at the United States.
“It doesn’t matter that the deployment poses no plausible physical threat to Russia’s deterrent, because Moscow fears it might serve as a toehold that could be expanded and upgraded in the future,ï¿½? said Wade Boese, research director for the Arms Control Association, a research and advocacy group here. “The administration should be careful that its response to a projected or hypothetical threat does not create a much bigger problem with Russia.ï¿½?