American forces are now manning a new radar defense site in Turkey that could help defend Europe from a potential Iranian ballistic missile attack, the U.S. Army's commander in Europe said Sunday.
"We have the forces in place ... at a radar site in southern Turkey," Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said in an interview at Montenegro's main military airport in its capital.
It is the first time a senior U.S. commander has confirmed reports that the NATO defense shield radar _ which has caused tensions between Turkey and its Muslim neighbor Iran _ has been operational in the past few weeks. The radar is a key element in a planned ballistic missile defense system that also would put other land- and sea-based radars and anti-missile interceptors in several European locations over the next decade.
"I can only speak for the ground base air defense units," Hertling said. "Buy I will tell you that we make constant coordination (with the U.S. Navy and Air Force), and I think we are well on track to conduct missile defense."
The deal with Turkey last year to station the sophisticated radar on its territory was hailed by U.S. officials as the most significant military cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Turkey, NATO's biggest Muslim member, since 2003, when Turkey angered American officials by refusing to allow an armored division to cross Turkish territory to join the invasion of Iraq.
Tensions between the West and Iran have risen in recent months over Tehran's nuclear program. Iran denies Western claims it seeks to develop atomic weapons, and says its disputed nuclear program is designed to produce energy and medical isotopes.
The U.S. says the missile defense shield is designed to counter the Iranian missile threat. Besides the radar in Turkey, the defense shield also will contain interceptor missiles stationed in Romania and Poland, four ballistic missile defense-capable ships in Rota, Spain, and an operational headquarters in Germany.
The X-band radar in Turkey is part of a system designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles at extremely high altitudes. It is located at a military base near Kurecik, a town about 435 miles (700 kilometers) west of the Iranian border.
"From an Army perspective, the missile defense plans are going as scheduled," Hertling said.
Russia has threatened retaliatory moves if Washington goes ahead with plans regarding the elements of the missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has repeatedly dismissed the U.S. claim that the prospective missile shield is intended to counter the Iranian missile threat, saying that its real goal is to erode Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Hertling was in Montenegro to visit U.S. crews flying two Black Hawk helicopters that are part of an aid operation in the areas of the tiny Balkan state hit by the heaviest snowfall in 60 years.
Slobodan Lekic contributed from Brussels.