Obama reworked the plans soon after taking office in 2009, arguing that the threat from long-range Iranian missiles was years off. His plans called for slower interceptors that could address Iran’s medium-range missiles. The interceptors would be upgraded gradually over four phases, culminating early next decade with those intended to protect both Europe and the US.
The plans have gained momentum in Europe with the signing of basing agreements in Poland, Romania and Turkey, as well as backing by NATO. Russia initially welcomed the plan, but now strongly opposes it, especially the interceptors in the final stage. Moscow fears those interceptors could catch its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) launched at the US.
It is that fourth stage that is now at issue. The GAO investigators said that the classified reports by the Missile Defense Agency concluded that Romania was a poor location for an interceptor to protect the US. It said the Polish site would work only if the US developed capabilities to launch interceptors while an Iranian missile was in its short initial phase of powered flight. However, the administration is not pursuing that capability because it does not believe it is feasible, one senior defense official said.
The military has considered deploying interceptors on ships, but the US Navy has safety concerns that have not yet been resolved. The suggestion of attempting intercepts from ships on the North Sea would likely aggravate tensions with Russia. That could put it right in the path that some Russian ICBMs would use, further reinforcing Russia’s belief that it, not Iran, is the target of the system.