The Air Force general who runs the Pentagon's missile defense projects said Wednesday that American interests would be "severely hurt" if President-elect Barack Obama decided to halt plans developed by the Bush administration to install missile interceptors in Eastern Europe.
Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a group of reporters that he is awaiting word from Obama's transition team on their interest in receiving briefings.
In the meantime, the Kremlin rejected a second set of U.S. proposals offered to assuage increasingly strident Russian criticism of plans for an American missile-defense system.
The Bush administration said the system would protect Europe against potential future attacks by Iranian long-range missiles. Moscow has angrily dismissed those assertions, saying the system could eliminate Russia's nuclear deterrent or spy on its military installations.
In a major speech just hours after Obama won the U.S. presidential vote, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to base short-range Iskander missiles in the Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad on the border with Poland if the U.S. goes forward with its plans.
The Bush administration later sent Moscow a new set of proposals, including suggestions about allowing Russian observers at the planned U.S. sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to John Rood, the U.S. acting undersecretary of state for arms control.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said over the weekend the latest U.S. proposals were insufficient. On Wednesday, an unidentified Kremlin official told Russian news agencies that Moscow was prepared to work with Washington on questions of European security but accused the Bush administration of trying to limit the incoming Obama administration's choices on the issue.
During the campaign, Obama was not explicit about his intentions with regard to missile defense. The program has tended to draw less support from Democrats over the years, particularly during the Reagan presidency when it was seen as a "Star Wars" effort to erect an impenetrable shield against nuclear missile attack from the Soviet Union. More recently the project has been scaled back, although it has again created an East-West divide by stirring Russian opposition to the proposed European link.
Obama has said it would be prudent to "explore the possibility of deploying missile defense systems in Europe," in light of what he called active efforts by Iran to develop ballistic missiles as well as nuclear weapons.
But Obama expressed some skepticism about the technical capability of U.S. missile defenses. He said that if elected his administration would work with NATO allies to develop anti-missile technologies.
Obering, who is leaving his post next week after more than four years in charge, said in the interview that his office has pulled together information for a presentation to the Obama team, if asked.
"What we have discovered is that a lot of the folks that have not been in this administration seem to be dated, in terms of the program," he said. "They are kind of calibrated back in the 2000 time frame and we have come a hell of a long way since 2000. Our primary objective is going to be just, frankly, educating them on what we have accomplished, what we have been able to do and why we have confidence in what we are doing."
Asked whether he meant that Obama or his advisers had an outdated view of missile defense, Obering said he was speaking more generally about people who have not closely followed developments in this highly technical field.
Obering said he is confident in the technology needed to make the European leg of the missile defense system work.
"In terms of any recommendations for the future, I would say that if we were to walk away from these proposed deployments to Europe, that it would severely hurt, number one, our ability to protect our deployed forces in that region and our allies and friends from what we see as an emerging threat. Number two, I think it would severely undermine U.S. leadership in NATO."