PODGORICA, Montenegro - US forces are operating a new radar defense site in Turkey that could help defend Europe from a potential Iranian ballistic missile attack, the Army’s commander in Europe said yesterday.
“We have the forces in place . . . at a radar site in southern Turkey,’’ Lieutenant General Mark Hertling said in an interview at Montenegro’s main military airport in its capital.
It is the first time a senior US 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 antimissile interceptors in several European locations over the next decade.
“I can only speak for the ground base air defense units,’’ Hertling said. “But I will tell you that we make constant coordination [with the US Navy and Air Force], and I think we are well on track to conduct missile defense.’’
In a separate development yesterday, Israeli defense officials confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones as well as antiaircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of Iran, its archenemy.
The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries reflect Israel’s efforts to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state. Its most pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program.
In Jerusalem, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Iran’s nuclear program will take center stage in his upcoming talks with US and Canadian leaders. Netanyahu is to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Friday and with President Obama in Washington on Monday.
Speaking to the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said a UN nuclear agency report last week buttressed Israel’s warnings that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear bomb. The agency said Iran has rapidly increased production of higher-grade enriched uranium over the last few months.
Iran denies Western assertions that it is seeking to develop atomic weapons and says its disputed nuclear program is designed to produce energy and medical isotopes.
Washington’s deal with Turkey last year to station the sophisticated radar on its territory was hailed by US officials as the most significant military cooperation agreement between the US and Turkey, NATO’s biggest Muslim member, since 2003, when Turkey angered US officials by refusing to allow an armored division to cross Turkish territory to join the invasion of Iraq.
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 operations 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 at a military base near Kurecik, a town about 435 miles 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. The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly dismissed the US assertion 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.