BRUSSELS, Belgium &

NATO ordered its military experts today to draw up plans for a possible short-range missile defense system to protect member nations that would be left exposed by proposed U.S. anti-missile units in central Europe.




A final decision on building the NATO system is not expected until next year, but the agreement by defense ministers to launch the study indicates a growing acceptance of Washington's plans among the 26 allies, despite initial skepticism in some European nations and opposition from Russia.




"The NATO road map on missile defense is now clear. It's practical and it's agreed by all," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary general.




Ministers also considered the impact of Russia's offer to cooperate on using a radar base in Azerbaijan as part of a missile shield. Diplomats said Defense Secretary Robert Gates welcomed the Russian offer as a basis for discussion, following Moscow's furious reaction to the U.S. missile defense plans for the Czech Republic and Poland.




Gates told the closed meeting, however, that Washington would continue its negotiations to install its 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and the main radar base in the Czech Republic, the diplomats said.




Washington says the addition of the European bases to anti-missile installations in North America would protect most of Europe from the threat of long-range attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. But it would leave Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and parts of Romania exposed.




To fill that gap, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO experts would produce a report by February on a short-range anti-missile defenses "that can be bolted on to the overall missile defense system as it would be installed by the United States."




Russia has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. plans by pulling out of a key arms control treaty and pointing warheads at Europe for the first time since the Cold War. However, at last week's G-8 summit, President Vladimir Putin seemed to take a more open approach, suggesting Russia could cooperate with the West on an anti-missile radar base in Azerbaijan.




"I will certainly underscore our interest in exploring with them President Putin's proposal with respect to radar in Azerbaijan," Gates said Wednesday on his way to the NATO meeting.




During a stop in Germany, Gates said he was pleased Putin had acknowledged "that Iran does represent a problem that needs to be dealt with in terms of potential missile defense."




NATO ministers will seek more details of the Russian proposal from their Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov. But alliance experts said complex technical issues meant it was too early to say if the Azerbaijani radar could effectively replace or supplement the planned U.S. installations in central Europe.




"The trouble with missile defense is that it is rocket science," said John Colston, NATO's assistant secretary-general for defense policy.




The NATO ministers also agreed to step up work to prevent attacks on alliance members' computer systems, following a sustained cyber assault on Estonian Web sites at the height of a diplomatic dispute between the Baltic nation and Russia in May.




The ministers were due to meet their Afghan counterpart Friday to likely discuss U.S. claims that Iran is helping arm Taliban insurgents fighting NATO's 36,000-member military force there &

a claim Afghanistan's defense minister played down today.