WASHINGTON — President Obama scrapped his predecessor's proposed antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe on Thursday and ordered instead the development of a reconfigured system designed to shoot down short- and medium-range Iranian missiles.
In one of the biggest national security reversals of his young presidency, Mr. Obama canceled former President George W. Bush's plans to station a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. Instead, he plans to deploy smaller SM-3 interceptors by 2011, first aboard ships and later in Europe, possibly even in Poland or the Czech Republic.
President Barack Obama spoke about the missile shield at the White House on Thursday.
Luke Sharrett/The New York Times
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Mr. Obama said that the new system "will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies" to meet a changing threat from Iran. Administration officials cited what they called accumulating evidence that Iran had made more progress than anticipated in building short- and medium-range missiles that could threaten Israel and Europe than it had in developing the intercontinental missiles that the Bush system was more suited to counter.
But the decision churned domestic and international politics as Republican critics at home accused Mr. Obama of betraying allies and caving in to Russian pressure, while officials in Eastern Europe expressed discomfort and confusion at the dramatic shift. President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, who is to meet with Mr. Obama in New York next week, reacted cautiously as Moscow tried to determine whether the new system was less threatening to its own security.
Mr. Obama's transformation of the missile defense program is one of his administration's sharpest revisions of the national security policy he inherited from Mr. Bush. At the same time, he resisted pressure from liberals in his party to eliminate the program altogether and he produced an alternative that effectively guaranteed that the United States would deploy some form of European antimissile shield in the near future.
"President Bush was right that Iran's ballistic missile program poses a significant threat," Mr. Obama said. But he said the new assessment of the Iranian threat required a different system using existing technology. "This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program," he said.
The White House adamantly denied that its decision had anything to do with Russian objections to Mr. Bush's program and said that the United States would continue developing the larger interceptors in case it eventually needed to deploy them. The administration also scrambled to reassure Poland and the Czech Republic that it was not abandoning them.
Mr. Obama called the leaders of both nations to reaffirm what he called "our deep and close ties," and publicly reiterated America's commitment under Article 5 of the NATO treaty to come to their defense in the event of an attack. Aides said that Mr. Obama would keep Mr. Bush's promise to provide a Patriot antimissile battery to Poland.
Yet even as it sought to calm Warsaw and Prague, the administration hoped to use the policy change to mitigate Israel's desire to take military action against Iran's nuclear complexes as Iran comes closer to building a warhead and mounting it on a missile. "We hope that it will reassure them that perhaps there's a little more time here," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said of the Israelis.
The decision drew immediate Republican criticism. "Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe," said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader. "It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world."
Eric S. Edelman, the under secretary of defense under Mr. Bush, said in an interview that the decision had "good news and bad news."
"It's better, obviously, to have some missile defense capability there now," he said. But he said the move would "raise questions" about American commitments and make it harder for the United States to change course if Iran later developed longer-range missiles. "There are going to be enormous repercussions to this decision that will ripple out," he said.
Mr. Obama stressed that Mr. Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported the decision, and he sent Mr. Gates, a Republican first appointed by Mr. Bush, to discuss the decision with reporters. Mr. Gates said that the new system would put defenses in place seven years earlier than the Bush plan. While no longer deploying the original interceptors in Poland, the United States "would prefer to put the SM-3s in Poland," Mr. Gates said.
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," Mr. Gates said. He added that the new configuration "provides a better missile defense capability" for Europe and American forces "than the program I recommended almost three years ago."
Mr. Gates and other officials said Iran was moving quickly toward a workable arsenal of missiles that could strike Israel and Europe. In May, Iran launched the Sejil-2, a successful test of a two-stage solid-fuel missile with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. Unlike Iran's liquid-fuel missiles, a solid-fuel missile can be stored, moved and fired on shorter notice, and thus is considered a greater threat.
The administration's new four-phase plan would deploy existing SM-3 interceptors using the sea-based Aegis system in 2011, then deploy an improved version in 2015 both on ships and on land. Rather than the 10 bigger interceptors originally envisioned for Poland, there could be 40 to 50 of the smaller missiles on land by then and more on ships. A more advanced version would be deployed in 2018 and yet another generation in 2020, the latter with more capacity to counter intercontinental missiles.
The interceptors Mr. Bush wanted to put in Poland would not have been deployed until 2018, officials said. The SM-3 missiles have had eight successful tests so far, and were used to shoot down a satellite, although critics said the missiles have not had to cope with the sort of decoys enemies might use. Instead of the sophisticated radar proposed for the Czech Republic, officials said they would rely more on a limited version in Turkey or the Caucasus, as well as satellites and newly developed airborne sensors.
In Moscow, Mr. Medvedev offered a measured reaction. "We appreciate the responsible approach of the U.S. president toward implementing our agreements," he said on national television. "I am prepared to continue this dialogue."Peter Baker reported from Washington and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin. Judy Dempsey contributed reporting from Berlin, and Clifford J. Levy from Moscow.