By Emelie Rutherford

Congressional Republicans immediately attacked yesterday the Pentagon’s new European missile-defense plan, charging it would leave the United States vulnerable, while Democrats hailed the new sea-and-land-based approach as vital for countering near-term overseas threats.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James Cartwright told Pentagon reporters yesterday the new proposal–a phased, distributed interceptor and sensor setup that does not include the planned fixed radar in the Czech Republic and ground-based interceptors in Poland–“is consistent with” the Pentagon’s pending fiscal year 2010 budget request.

While Cartwright said the debate on the new “cost-effective” plan will happen when the Pentagon submits its FY ’11 budget proposal to Congress, likely early next year, lawmakers yesterday called for several things to happen in the near term.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, joined a wide array of Republicans–including Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)–in slamming the plan Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama unveiled yesterday.

In terms of procedure, Turner questioned to reporters how Pentagon leaders can “take a whole year before they ask Congress for funding for portions of this plan that are systems that don’t even exist today.”

“Its a big question as to how the president could at the same time walk away from a system that was going to provide us protection, put forward a system that portions of it don’t even exist today, and that extend out well past a whole another decade, and still not even ask Congress for funding,” Turner said at a Capitol press conference with other Republicans.

Turner called on the Obama administration to release a classified, independent report prepared for Congress he said shows the Bush administration’s “third site” in Poland and the Czech Republic would be the most cost-effective way to protect European allies and the United States.

Many in the GOP charged the new plan would leave the U.S. homeland vulnerable to long-range missiles from Iran, defer too much to Russian concerns about the plan for fixed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and harm relations with those two nations as they moved toward supporting the Bush administration plan. Critics pointed to how the new plan would deploy interceptors to counter long-range missiles up to seven years after the date in the Bush plan, and also questioned the validity of the new intelligence showing Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability is not as mature as previously thought.

“We have seen nothing to indicate any downgrade of the threat,” House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Ranking Member Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) told reporters. He called for administration officials to testify before the HASC and provide the intelligence estimates.

Senior SASC member Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) joined Republicans in criticizing the Pentagon’s announcement. He called on the administration to explain how the new plan jibes with Senate legislative language saying any alternate to the third site should be capable of protecting the United States (Defense Daily, July 28).

Many congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), hailed the new missile-defense plan. It calls for deploying the sea-based Aegis system and its Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) block IA interceptors, along with sensors, in 2011 to counter missile threats to Europe and deployed U.S. troops. Later phases of the system would include more-advanced versions of the SM-3, including land-based setups, in 2015 for countering short-and-medium range missiles, in 2018 for intermediate-range threats, and in 2020 for medium-and-intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs that could reach the United States.

“It’s a matter of actually facing reality,” HASC Republican Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) told Defense Daily. “To me, the potential threat is (medium) and short-range missiles from the country of Iran, not intercontinental ballistic missiles, which work will continue on.”

Deployment of the third site, he noted, was still a long way away, and the new plan would focus resources where they will be the most effective.

HASC Strategic Forces Chairman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) told Defense Daily his subcommittee will have a briefing soon on the new missile-defense plan, and will likely hold a public hearing with Pentagon officials in October.

Langevin, who will have a significant role in the coming debate, said he plans to ask questions of the underlying intelligence.

“I’m very supportive of the Pentagon’s move and the administration’s move to change strategy and focus ballistic-missile-defense efforts on what we do well (in defending against short-and-medium-range threats) and to meet the actual threats that we face, while at the same time keeping an eye on the long-term plan of meeting the future threats in the out-years,” he said.

Langevin said he shares his Republican colleagues’ “passion” for working to ensure the United States has “robust ballistic defense.”

“But as always I want to make sure we’re putting the resources in the right place and not just throwing money at it or pursuing a strategy that we’re not proficient at, that…is not ready for prime time, if you will,” he said. After building a robust defense against short-and-medium-range missiles, the United States will “build from there” to meet future threats under the new setup, he said.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) praised the administration’s announcement yesterday, saying it “reinforces our security commitment to our European allies; it does not weaken it.” He said the new missile-defense plan focuses on current, instead of potential future, threats to not only deployed U.S. forces but also European allies. He pointed out that the Polish and Czech governments and the U.S. Congress hadn’t agreed anyway to proceed with the third site, and noted the potential for Poland and the Czech Republic to take part in the new arrangement.

Levin said the administration’s move supports a NATO policy to address missile threats “in a prioritized manner that includes consideration of the level of imminence of the threat and the level of acceptable risk.” And he cited benefits of cooperating with Russia on missile defense.

“President Obama’s decision will not threaten Russia, and it offers an opportunity for missile defense to serve as a uniting issue, rather than a dividing one,” he said.