Poland speeds up missile defense plan amid Ukraine crisis

By Marcin Goettig and Andrea Shalal WARSAW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Poland has decided to speed up its tender for a missile defense system, a defense ministry spokesman said on Thursday, in a sign of Warsaw's disquiet over the tension between neighboring Ukraine and Russia. "The issues related with Poland's air defense will be accelerated," spokesman Jacek Sonta said. "Poland plans to choose the best offer for its missile defense in the next few weeks." The NATO member had planned to reduce the number of bidders by June, but the crisis in Ukraine and concerns about Russia's annexation of Crimea have prompted officials to speed up the timetable. There are four bidders: France's Thales, in a consortium with European group MBDA and the Polish state defense group; the Israeli government; Raytheon of the United States; and the MEADS consortium led by Lockheed Martin. The spokesman added that Poland would like to sign the final agreement on the construction of the missile shield this year. One of the bidders, MEADS, said the tender was worth about $5 billion, but experts say the whole missile shield will be worth up to 40 billion zlotys ($13.1 billion), including maintenance costs. It is to be completed by the end of 2022. Poland fell under Soviet domination after World War Two, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, but was one of the first to shake off Communist rule in 1989. It has taken an active diplomatic role in the crisis over Ukraine, including by requesting NATO consultations earlier this month. U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch welcomed Poland's decision to speed up its defense plans. "I think the action in Crimea makes it abundantly clear that NATO needs to do more to upgrade its defenses, not just missile defenses," the Massachusetts Democrat told Reuters. "But certainly I can fully support the decision by Poland to expedite that whole process and I think it's entirely appropriate that we should support that effort," he added. The first phase of the Polish system is to comprise eight sets of mid-range interceptor rockets, which may later be supplemented by short-range and long-range ones. Poland has already passed legislation to secure funding for the shield, the defense ministry spokesman said. The planned system is separate from elements of a U.S. missile shield to be deployed in Poland by 2018, as confirmed by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on a visit to Warsaw this week. ($1 = 3.0482 Polish Zlotys) (Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)