As tensions grow over Iran's nuclear program, the US is allegedly moving to locate a missile defense system in Europe. European observers, however, tend to question its benefits and think it could do more harm than good.
The United States is trying to rally its partners behind plans to build a missile shield but many in Europe, where some of the network would be based, remain skeptical, defense analysts say.
The system, which will consist of 10 antimissile interceptors -- rockets designed to shoot down incoming missiles -- is scheduled to be ready by 2011. It will be integrated into a broader American missile defense system that is designed to protect the US homeland -- not Europe, per se.
Iran, deep in conflict with the West over its nuclear program, announced in April that it had tested a new generation of medium-range missile featuring multiple warheads and radar-evading technology.
The Pentagon says that no decision has been taken yet about where on the old continent the missile defense system might be located.
"We expect these consultations will continue in the coming weeks and months with countries that have expressed an interest," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters in Washington on Monday.
A difference in perception
Some experts suggest the plans have run up against different visions of what constitutes a threat on either side of the Atlantic.
"There is a difference in perception," said Andrew Brookes of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "America is looking at protection from strategic missile attacks from places like China, North Korea and Iran. Europe doesn't believe that's a threat."
"Europeans, inherently, don't buy into this fantasy," Brookes said.
The plans are the latest chapter in the development of an anti-missile program, initially attempted at great cost under US President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. The current system is no longer aimed at Russia, rather its aimed at so-called "rogue states"-- and is specifically designed to counter a potential nuclear strike from Iran.
At NATO headquarters, officials refused to publicly comment on the US plans.
"The US took a political decision to go ahead with the deployment of a missile defense system years ago whereas Europe hasn't had that discussion," one NATO source said, adding that Washington is "forging ahead."
The debate may not yet have taken place, but the 26 members of NATO have in hand a 10,000-page feasibility study setting out the case for a missile shield and the possible scenarios in which one might be useful.
Ordered by NATO leaders in Prague in 2002, the text has not been discussed at political level yet, but the United States is pushing its allies to debate the subject at the next alliance summit in Riga, Latvia in November.
"There is a growing threat of long-range missile attack on NATO territory and it is timely to examine ways and means of addressing that threat," said Marshall Billingslea, head of NATO's Conference of National Armaments Directors, announcing that the report had been completed.
Europe remains cautious
Europe is, nevertheless, unlikely to act too hastily.
"On the European side, there is an almost categorical refusal to take decisions on the run," said Rik Coolsaet of the Royal Institute of International Relations in Brussels.
"Politically, Europeans understand that there is a potential danger from the Iranians, but it is not a danger they see likely in the short term. The sense of urgency is far less present in Europe than in the United States," Coolsaet said.
Another obstacle to accepting the US plan is that it remains to be seen whether such a missile shield can actually work.
Former head of the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation says the interceptors haven't "had a successful intercept test for 4 years." But the Pentagon has brushed this aside saying the "technical problems" are not "show stoppers."
"We are being asked -- us, the Europeans -- to make a huge investment to buy a program which, even in the United States, is not believed to be ready," Coolsaet said.
Some observers would go as far as saying that the basic premise of the anti-missile program is essentially flawed.
"I don't see any evidence that the Iranians are producing a weapon that can reach New York," Brookes said. "I don't see any evidence that if they had such a weapon, they would even in their wildest dreams contemplate using it given the massive preponderance of retaliatory capability the United States has."
According to Brookes, it is more important to focus on current rather than potential threats.
"We have to focus on the threat that really matters, and what matters at present is defending troops that might be deployed rather than defending Berlin against a perception of a threat," he said.
"German politicians, French politicians and British politicians do not regard Pyongyang as about to launch anything in the foreseeable future at a European capital," Brookes said. "They just don't."
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