The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, concerned about a potential threat from Iran, plans to recommend in coming months a European site to host the first ground-based interceptor missiles outside the US, the head of the agency said on Tuesday.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Britain have been named by the agency as possible candidates to help bolster a US missile-defense shield against any missiles shot from the Middle East.
The initial configuration of the ground-based leg of the system, put together by Boeing Co, is aimed at thwarting ballistic missiles fired from North Korea.
In the next several months, "we will have a recommendation with respect to sites and alternative sites" in Europe, Air Force Lieutenant-General Henry Obering told reporters after a speech to an annual missile-defense conference in Huntsville, Alabama.
But he said he did not know when to expect higher-ups to choose the so-called third site, which would join Vandenberg Air Force base in California and Ft. Greely, Alaska, as home to silos housing US interceptor missiles.
The ultimate choice largely may reflect political trade-offs based on the kind of deals Poland or the Czech Republic are willing to strike with the Pentagon, outside experts said.
The Times yesterday reported that the Pentagon was making inquiries as to whether Britain would allow the US to set up in the country.
American defense planners are inquiring whether the British government would accept the interceptor missiles and radar, the newspaper reported, citing unnamed British officials.
The US preferred to put its European base in either Poland or the Czech Republic, but has turned to Britain because of increasing opposition to the idea in the two central European countries.
"A few weeks ago it looked like we were out of the woods on this one," an unnamed senior British source was quoted as saying.
"That has changed because Central Europe no longer looks like such an easy option," he said.
Obering said the US planned to install 10 ground-based interceptors at the projected European site by the end of 2011. By then, up to a total of 43 interceptors are due to have been installed in Alaska and California, he said.
Asked to describe the selection criteria, he spoke of optimizing protection for both the US and its European allies from any Middle Eastern warheads.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency has begun working with Israel to help find ways to counter enemy rockets, Obering told reporters.
He acknowledged some European allies had raised concerns about where the debris might fall from any missile shot down over Europe.
"I can tell you that our experience indicates that that is not something that needs to cause any kind of major alarm," he said, referring to what he described as the near total destruction of any missile payloads when slammed into by the interceptor missile's "kill vehicle."