U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Prague on July 8 to sign an accord on building a controversial U.S. radar installation in the Czech Republic.
The radar installation is part of a U.S. missile-defense plan that includes a proposed missile site in Poland and is intended to protect Europe and the United States against long-range missiles fired by hostile powers. Washington has identified Iran and North Korea as two such powers.
The signing of the pact opens the way for the Czech government to seek ratification by the country’s parliament for the project. The ratification process is widely expected to be difficult, with polls showing two-thirds of the public remains unconvinced the defense shield is needed.
But Washington hopes that both the Czech Republic and Poland will ultimately back the plan, and Rice’s visit offers her a personal opportunity to again argue publicly in its favor.
The U.S. secretary of state will meet with the Czech and international press to answer questions about the project.Poland Still In Talks
Negotiations with Poland -- where Washington wants to base up to 10 interceptor missiles -- have yet to proceed as far as they have in Prague. The Polish government is still negotiating the terms of the deal and also faces high public opposition to the plan.
The Polish government is reported to be seeking substantial U.S. aid to upgrade its military, partly to cope with what it says could be increased threats from Russia if it signs the deal.
Moscow denounces the missile shield as a threat to Russian security and says its construction risks sparking a new arms race. At times, military officials have even threatened to again aim Russian missiles westward if the Polish missile site is built.
Rice is almost certain to use her visit to Prague to again try to publicly reassure Russia. U.S. President George W. Bush and former Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to overcome differences over the missile shield but agreed to mutually take confidence-building steps to try to defuse tensions.
U.S. officials say the proposed $3.5 billion system would use interceptors that do not carry warheads but instead ram incoming missiles in a process likened to hitting a bullet with another bullet.
The U.S. plan calls for construction of both the radar and interceptor missile sites to begin in 2009 so the system could begin functioning in 2012 or 2013.
That is in line with U.S. intelligence that suggests Iran could develop long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in the United States by 2015.
Iran recently announced it had manufactured a new missile – the Ashura – with a range of 2,000 kilometers -- enough to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East.
NATO is considering ways to integrate the planned shield into a wider missile-defense system that would cover the entire southeastern rim of the alliance, including Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Turkey.
The Western alliance is to unveil its architecture for the wider system at a summit next year.But Will They Work?
But even as U.S. and NATO plans go forward for shielding Europe against short and medium-range missies from the Middle East, considerable controversy remains over the technical efficacy of missile-defense systems.
An editorial this month in "The Washington Post” criticized Bush for “trying to lock Poland and the Czech Republic into deals before the Pentagon has demonstrated that the missile system can accomplish the mission of defending both northern Europe and the United States from a missile attack from Iran.”
Critics say that interceptor missiles tests have been held only under controlled circumstances that do not resemble real attacks.
But proponents call the evidence from controlled tests sufficient to show the systems’ potential. In February, the Pentagon used a Navy missile to ram an old satellite to prevent it from re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere with a cargo of potentially dangerous fuel.
The interception followed Beijing’s similar shoot-down of an aging Chinese weather satellite last year. Both successful interceptions underline the importance given to missile-defense systems by the world’s major powers.
Czech Radar Dispute
In June 2007, RFE/RL explored the controversy over the proposed U.S. antimissile system in the Czech Republic.