DEVESELU (Romania) • The United States switched on a US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) missile shield in Romania yesterday that it sees as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states, although the Kremlin says it is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal.
To the music of military bands at the remote Deveselu air base, senior US and Nato officials declared operational the ballistic missile defence site, which is capable of shooting down rockets from countries such as Iran that Washington says could one day reach major European cities.
"As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend Nato," said US Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work, standing in front of the shield's massive grey concrete housing that was adorned with a US flag.
Despite Washington's plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, Mr Work said the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat. "There are no plans at all to do that," he told a news conference.
On Friday, the United States will break ground on a final site in Poland due to be ready by late 2018, completing the defence line first proposed almost a decade ago.
About the missile defence shield
• First proposed and agreed by the United States government in 2007, the European missile defence shield is aimed at shooting down Iranian missiles.
• Called the Aegis Ashore Missile Defence System, it will be handed over to the Nato command and housed at the US naval support facility in Deveselu, Romania.
• The facility will be manned by some 130 US sailors.
• The missile defence shield system is capable of firing SM-3 defensive missiles, which can defeat incoming short- and medium-range enemy missiles.
• The shield relies on radars to detect a ballistic missile launched into space. Tracking sensors then measure the rocket's trajectory and intercept and destroy it in space, before it re-enters the earth's atmosphere. The interceptors can be fired from ships or ground sites.
SOURCES: REUTERS, CNN
The full shield also includes ships and radars across Europe. It will be handed over to Nato in July, with command and control run from a US air base in Germany.
Russia is incensed at such a show of force by its Cold War rival in formerly communist-ruled eastern Europe where it once held sway. Moscow says the US-led alliance is trying to encircle it close to the strategically important Black Sea, home to a Russian naval fleet and where Nato is also considering increasing patrols.
The readying of the shield also comes as Nato prepares a new deterrent in Poland and the Baltics, following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Despite US assurances, the Kremlin says the missile shield's real aim is to neutralise Moscow's nuclear arsenal long enough for the United States to make a first strike on Russia in the event of war.
US officials dismiss the Russian view as "strategic paranoia" and blame Moscow for breaking off talks with Nato in 2013 that were aimed at explaining how the shield would operate.
First agreed by the US government in 2007 and then cancelled and relaunched by the newly elected President Barack Obama in 2009, the missile defence shield's stated aim is to protect North America and Europe from so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.