PRAGUE — One of the Bush administration's foreign policy priorities over the the past two years — a missile defense system in Europe — may be dramatically scaled back during Barack Obama's presidency.
The Bush plan calls for 10 interceptor missiles to be based in Poland and an accompanying radar base in the Czech Republic. But the move has sparked widespread opposition here, and has prompted outrage in Russia.
The project has been further bedeviled by performance problems with the planned interceptor missiles.
Officials from both the Czech government and opposition say that, based on recent conversations with U.S. officials, the interceptor missiles could be sent back to the drawing board while the radar is given a new assignment.
Originally intended for placement in Europe in order to track long-range ballistic missiles that could be fired from Iran, the radar could also be used to track short- and medium-range missiles, according to Veronika Kuchynova-Smigolova, director of security policy at the Foreign Ministry.
"It is certainly one of the possibilities that we would have the radar initially connected to (existing) U.S. and NATO (radar) systems, because the radar would increase the effectiveness of those systems," she said. "The interceptors in Poland could come in later as a protection against long-range missiles."
Jan Hamacek — a member of the leading opposition party, the Social Democrats, and the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Parliament — drew similar conclusions from a series of recent talks with officials in the Bush administration and leading Democrats from Capitol Hill.
"The Obama administration will be very reluctant to spend money on the deployment of something that doesn't really work," Hamacek said, referring to the interceptors. "And I think they'll be reassessing the whole concept of spiral development, which actually means deploying something which is not fully ready for combat deployment and then upgrading and updating until it finally works. I think this concept has proven to be very expensive and not effective."
The interceptors have, at best, proved unreliable in relatively simple tests, hitting the incoming missile just 8 out of 14 times, under circumstances that experts say do not reflect real-world conditions.
Apart from reliability, the system has been controversial. The Bush administration announced its plans two years ago, with the expectation that deals with Poland and the Czech Republic would be completed by January 2008. Instead, as George W. Bush leaves office, the plan he'd hoped would be a defense legacy looks increasingly doomed.
Bilateral negotiations here were bedeviled by overwhelming public opposition. Czechs have consistently rejected the plan by a 2-1 margin. Opposition in Poland is also strong, though less so. Negotiations there faltered over how much money and arms the U.S. would pump into Poland's decaying military. Both countries eventually signed bilateral treaties with the U.S., but they have not been passed by either country's Parliament. And by most counts, it doesn't look like the Czech government has enough votes to ratify such a treaty.
The governing three-party coalition cannot even count on all of its own members to back the plan. The Green Party, for example, is deeply divided over the issue. Ondrej Liska, the party's education minister, wants to call a time-out for the whole ratification process, which is expected to resume in February when the Parliament reconvenes.
"There are too many risks and question marks surrounding the matter that have not been sufficiently discussed," he said in an email response to questions. "They range from the risk of the militarization of the space, health impacts of the radar (and) increased international tensions..."
The Kremlin opposes having the bases so close to Russian territory. Moscow is threatening to deploy medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad aimed directly at the proposed sites in the Czech Republic and in Poland. Such talk has many experts noting that U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the days of the Cold War.
Indeed, on Capitol Hill on Friday, Michele Flournoy, Obama's nominee for a high-level Pentagon post, testified that missile defense in Europe would be reviewed in light of the deteriorating relationship with Moscow, according to Reuters.
In addition to angering Russia, the missile defense system would not provide protection for the U.S. or its allies, said Philip Coyle of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.
According to Coyle, who is a vociferous critic of Bush's missile defense plan, three factors — the burgeoning budget deficit, a Pentagon funding request for $62.5 billion over the next five years and the interceptors' marginal success — render missile defense ripe for the budget axe.
"The Obama administration cannot avoid cutting missile defense," Coyle said via email. "Obama needs the money for higher priorities, and there are not many places where you can so easily find $10 billion dollars year after year for the foreseeable future that could be better spent on important national needs."
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the name of the Center for Defense Information.