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Gates Defends New Missile Shield Plan

U.S.Defense Secretary Robert Gates answers a question during a press briefing at the Pentagon on September 17

U.S.Defense Secretary Robert Gates answers a question during a press briefing at the Pentagon on September 17

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has lashed out at critics of a new missile defense plan for Europe and insisted it was not a concession to Russia, as some charge.

Gates, a Republican who served in senior positions under former President George H.W. Bush and his son, former President George W. Bush, wrote in an opinion article for the New York Times on September 20 that the criticism of the plan is misguided.

"I believe this is a very pragmatic proposal. I have found since taking this post that when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith," Gates said.

The objective of the missile plan is to counter the threat of missile attack from Iran, not Russia.

The Bush plan was intended to intercept long-range Iranian missiles, but Iran has yet to develop long-range missiles and U.S. intelligence recently determined that Tehran is unlikely to have such missiles until between 2015 and 2020.

As a result, Gates changed the plan to counter the possibility of short- and medium-range missiles.

Moscow had protested the Bush plan because it would be based in the Czech Republic and Poland. Leaders in the Czech Republic and Poland had found comfort in the Bush plan because they saw it as some protection against nearby Russia.

Under Obama's new plan, the United States would initially deploy ships with missile interceptors and in a second phase would field land-based defense systems.

Since the plan was announced, Gates has been taking fire from Republicans as well as many military analysts. Democrats and arms control experts have welcomed the plan.

Senate John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the new plan "misguided" and said it was a concession to Russia and an abrogation of an agreement between the United States, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Gates, however, said it was "a better way forward" and argued that Europe will still have missile defense under it. He said it was a distortion to call the new plan "some sort of concession to Russia."

"Russia's attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue. Of course, considering Russia's past hostility toward American missile defense in Europe, if Russia's leaders embrace this plan, then that will be an unexpected -- and welcome -- change of policy on their part," he said.