Vondra - US will offer Czechs anti-missile radar system, Poles interceptor base

The Czech foreign minister Alexandr Vondra appeared to confirm this week what defence analysts have been speculating upon for some time: if the United States decides to place part of its missile defence system in Europe, the Czech Republic will almost certainly be asked to host a radar and tracking station, not a full-blown missile base. However there are still many hurdles to be overcome before work on such a facility can begin.

The U.S. has been developing a national missile defence system since the 1990s. The system is designed to track and shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. The idea of protecting America and its allies from missile attack has been around for decades - remember the Star Wars programme of the 1980s - but with the end of the Cold War, the U.S.'s priorities have changed. The Pentagon is currently concerned about an attack by a so-called rogue state such as Iran or North Korea.

At present the missile defence installations only exist on American soil, the largest being in Alaska. However, for some time Washington has been exploring ways of extending the system to Europe. It seems the U.S. is now close to making a concrete offer to Poland and the Czech Republic.

The idea is to split the base between two countries - a radar and tracking station in one country and the actual missile interceptor base in the other. The latter would be the larger and more militarily sensitive of the two, the facility that would actually be doing the firing.

The media has speculated for some time that the Poles would be asked to host the interceptor base and the Czechs would be offered a radar station. This was confirmed earlier this week by Foreign Minister Vondra.

Opinion polls have shown public opposition to the idea. But Mr Vondra says a simple radar system is far less controversial than an interceptor base, and believes there would be no reason to hold a referendum on the issue. He says the parties in parliament are capable of coming to an agreement. The opposition Social Democrats are far being more cautious.

Alexandr Vondra made the comments to a Czech newspaper at the NATO summit in Riga. At present this is an American system, not a NATO one, but Mr Vondra believes it would be compatible with anything NATO develops in the future. NATO is indeed examining ways of building its own missile defence system, but analysts are sceptical that the alliance's 26 members could agree to build and finance such a system. Mr Vondra and others, therefore, believe that Czechs should sign up to the American system, as it would provide an extra security umbrella, economic benefits and international prestige.

There are still many obstacles to such a system becoming reality, and those obstacles are essentially political. There may be substantial displays of public dissatisfaction in both the Czech Republic and Poland if the system gets the green light. It's also being decided at a time of great political uncertainty in both countries - the Czech Republic still doesn't have a proper government. And most crucially, the Bush administration has just lost its majority in Congress. There are reports from the U.S. that the Democrats want to reassess the funds already allocated for the missile defence system.