The Air Force general who runs the Pentagon's missile defense projects said Wednesday that American interests would be "severely hurt" if President-elect Obama decided to halt plans developed by the Bush administration to install missile interceptors in Eastern Europe.
Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a group of reporters that he is awaiting word from Obama's transition team on their interest in receiving briefings.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has rejected a second set of U.S. proposals offered to assuage increasingly strident Russian criticism of plans for an American missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, news agencies reported Wednesday.
During the campaign, Obama was not explicit about his intentions with regard to missile defense. The program has tended to draw less support from Democrats over the years, particularly during the Reagan presidency when it was seen as a "Star Wars" effort to erect an impenetrable shield against nuclear missile attack from the Soviet Union. More recently the project has been scaled back, although it has again created an East-West divide by stirring Russian opposition to the proposed European link.
Obama has said it would be prudent to "explore the possibility of deploying missile defense systems in Europe," in light of what he called active efforts by Iran to develop ballistic missiles as well as nuclear weapons.
Iran's defense minister announced the country hasa new, more accurate generation of its longest-range surface-to-surface missile. Iranian television showed the missile being fired Wednesday from a launching pad in the desert.
But Obama expressed some skepticism about the technical capability of U.S. missile defenses. He said that if elected his administration would work with NATO allies to develop anti-missile technologies.
Obering, who is leaving his post next week after more than four years in charge, said in the interview that his office has pulled together information for a presentation to the Obama team, if asked.
"What we have discovered is that a lot of the folks that have not been in this administration seem to be dated, in terms of the program," he said. "They are kind of calibrated back in the 2000 time frame and we have come a hell of a long way since 2000. Our primary objective is going to be just, frankly, educating them on what we have accomplished, what we have been able to do and why we have confidence in what we are doing."
The Bush administration says the system would protect Europe against potential future attacks by Iranian long-range missiles. Moscow has angrily dismissed those assertions, saying the system could eliminate Russia's nuclear deterrent or spy on its military installations.
In a major speech just hours after Obama won the U.S. presidential vote, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to base short-range Iskander missiles in the Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad on the border with Poland if the U.S. goes forward with its plans.
The Bush administration later sent Moscow a new set of proposals, including suggestions about allowing Russian observers at the planned U.S. sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to John Rood, the U.S. acting undersecretary of state for arms control.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said over the weekend the latest U.S. proposals were insufficient. On Wednesday, an unidentified Kremlin official told Russian news agencies that Moscow was prepared to work with Washington on questions of European security but accused the Bush administration of trying to limit the incoming Obama administration's choices on the issue.
The Kremlin did not comment on the report, but Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell did.
"I hope this unnamed Kremlin official does not express his government's true wishes because we still very much wish to partner with Russia to combat the growing ballistic missile threat emanating from Iran," he said.
"They are clearly determined to develop a weapon capable of reaching Europe, and for that matter Russia, so it continues to be in our mutual interest to work together on this issue."
Meanwhile, Obering said Wednesday that Russia has not indicated what part of the new U.S. proposals it objects to.
"We have laid out very common sense approaches here. I think it is time that we ask the Russians to justify why they are taking a stance that internationally is so unreasonable."
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said the U.S. envoy William Burns met with Lavrov and Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko on Wednesday to discuss missile defense talks taking place next month. No further details were released.
An American official said separately the U.S. and Russia will begin talks Thursday in Geneva on finding a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires at the end of next year. The 1991 START treaty significantly cut U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The official spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to be quoted by name.