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Published on: February 20, 2014
The Best Offense
When Missile Defense Is About More Than Missiles

U.S. and NATO missile defense plans are about more than just guarding against rogue missile threats from Iran. They will shape the U.S.-Russia relationship and, more importantly, long-term relations between America and Europe.

It is an old Cold War-era argument that when frost begins to settle on the Washington-Moscow communication lines, arms control is a bulletproof way to thaw them out. Since 2009, nuclear disarmament has been one area where politics and personal conviction seem to have merged for President Obama. The President’s commitment to a nuclear arms control agenda was first outlined in his April 2009 speech in Prague and then at the United Nations. In 2010, the Administration pursued this agenda by hosting the first Nuclear Security Summit, aimed at keeping nukes out of terrorists’ hands. Having discerned that this was a priority for the Administration, Russia negotiated an arms control agreement driven largely by its own requirements, though it made it clear throughout that the United States and NATO missile defense plans were a bone of contention. Today more than ever, President Obama’s success or failure in arms control with Moscow rests on a key issue of strategic discord: missile defense. Success or failure in resolving these differences will shape both the U.S.-Russia relationship and, more importantly, long-term relations between America and Europe.

The deal approved in 2011 commits Washington and Moscow by 2018 to fielding no more than 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads, 800 launchers and heavy bombers, and 700 delivery vehicles. In order to gain Russian cooperation on a follow up deal, the Administration also considered sharing ballistic missile defense data to assuage Russian fears of a threat to its long-range nuclear forces. This idea, which set off alarm bells on Capitol Hill, was seen as a prerequisite for new stockpile reduction negotiations. Reports in 2013 that the U.S. nuclear posture review would stipulate U.S. security based on 1,100 or fewer strategic warheads set off even more alarms.

Today some are calling for yet another treaty with further cuts. Even some of those who don’t covet the Holy Grail known as the “zero option” find this possibility enticing. After all, what’s not to like about further cuts in nuclear arsenals and new measures for proliferation controls?

There’s a lot to dislike, actually—especially if the price the United States and NATO pay is further concessions on the Transatlantic missile defense architecture.

The idea of a NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system has its roots in the 1990s. In the 2000s the idea took the form of the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) Program, intended for the protection of deployed NATO forces. This idea followed the completion of a two-year feasibility study by eight NATO nations, combining a number of NATO projects. As a result of the NATO Lisbon and Chicago Summits in November 2010 and May 2012, the program was extended to cover NATO European populations and territory. As currently conceived, the NATO common funded portion of ALTBMD, which addresses the command and control architecture and framework to knit together weapon and sensor contributions from various nations, is set to become fully operational later this decade.

The United States remains the key driver of the process, as it is providing its own resources to NATO missile defense. The core upper-tier portion of the system, the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), is the main American contribution. As of 2014 the EPAA capability is on schedule but still a work in progress, both in terms of coverage and magazine depth. (Phase I consists of only of two ships in the Mediterranean and a forward-based radar in Turkey. The follow-on Phase II and Phase III sites for Romania and Poland are still in varying stages of implementation and planning.) Of course, the United States could augment this by deploying more ships around Europe, but this is not likely in the coming years. In fact, in this time of crisis the United States would find it difficult to bring an additional four or five ships into the region. Moreover, the Obama Administration’s assurances to the contrary (and technical issues aside), EPAA remains quintessentially conditional. The administration retains its right to adjust the program depending on conditions and threat assessment. To quote the President’s Prague speech: “As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.” The deployment remains implicitly tied to the future of Iran nuclear talks, where Russia plays a key role. Meanwhile, the scope of the system—at least in the public pronouncements—excludes threats emanating from other regions, specifically Russia.

Russia has continued to tie any further nuclear weapons cuts to an agreement on missile defense, in effect making a New START II conditional on U.S. concessions on missile defense. This dynamic may become even more irresistible if the Iranian nuclear talks require further Russian collaboration. At the same time, Russia has predicated its policies on the assumption that, as Iran slows its progress toward an ICBM capability, the United States will slow or scrap altogether the projected development and deployment of the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor, which Moscow has insisted can offset Russia’s own ICBMs. The Obama Administration has rejected the Russian position, and Defense Secretary Hagel has reiterated the U.S. commitment to EPAA while in Poland. The United States, however, has announced that it planned to cancel EPAA Phase IV, with the Administration contending either that this was a reassessment of the threat from Iran or that the technology involved just wasn’t mature enough. Some have argued, however, that this move was in fact a unilateral concession by the Obama Administration.

Some in the U.S. policy community have argued that a cooperative NATO-Russian arrangement for territorial missile defense of Europe is in the U.S. interest. According to this line of thinking, access to early-warning data from radars owned or operated by Russia would augment data from NATO sensors, in part by providing earlier radar warning and tracking of ballistic missile launches from Iran. Hence, the argument goes, cooperative missile defense would offer a better defense of Europe than NATO alone could provide. This suggestion ignores one crucial fact, however: If NATO opts for this approach, the resulting politics would nullify any discussion of the deteriorating security environment in the East, and Russia would reemerge as an unchecked threat to NATO. Needless to say, any serious talk of a cooperative NATO-Russia territorial missile defense system would be bound to send chills down the spines of politicians in the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region.

The idea of NATO missile defense and U.S. involvement in the program have been central to the future of the NATO alliance. Ballistic missile defense is fast becoming what we might call a “new deterrence,” complementing legacy strategic defense and traditional nuclear deterrence. The proliferation of ballistic missiles has become a growing threat in the 21st century. For the NATO alliance it is not just about the growing numbers and sophistication of the systems but also about how missiles, and increasingly missile defense issues, have come to frame the future of U.S.-European relations.

This is currently a three-way conversation about how to dovetail the EPAA, the joint-funded NATO architecture framework of ALTBMD, and individual European national contributions. Part of the growing disconnect between the United States and Europe in NATO comes from the fact that European national contributions have thus far been limited to lower-tier weapon systems and upper-tier sensors that will be linked together by the ALTBMD command and control architecture. Here a European multinational solution, like the proposed upgrades to the German/Dutch/Danish trilateral frigate to incorporate BMD capability, would be a step forward—along with the integration of advanced SM-3 interceptors, which would bring the first European owned and controlled upper-tier capability to the theater. Increasingly, European contributions (for example, Poland’s proposed development and deployment of a lower-tier weapon system) have grown in importance for the alliance as a whole.

Since declaring “interim capability” at its 2012 summit meeting in Chicago, NATO has been moving towards full operational capability of its BMD command and control architecture. It has also embraced the phased deployment of EPAA with SM-3 interceptors in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018, with additional U.S. assets on ships based in Spanish ports. The EPAA is touted as a model of allied cooperation. And it is—at least on paper. But when one begins to look at the politics of missile defense in the context of real threats and power balances, the picture begins to change.

The simple technological reality of the EPAA is that the primary assets (the forward-based radar and the SM-3 interceptors) will remain U.S.-supplied. Thus their future will continue to rest on U.S. political decisions. The Russians know this and will do whatever they can to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe on this issue. The Obama Administration underscored the key role of the United States in any European upper-tier missile defense system in 2009 when it cancelled the George W. Bush Administration’s system and embarked on its own much touted and technologically more mature version, on the premise that it was inherently more suitable for the defense of European territory from an Iranian strike. After going to pains to sell this new approach to Europe, the administration subsequently made clear that deployment of EPAA remained solely under the control of policymakers in Washington by eliminating Phase IV.

With budget constraints growing daily, the individual contributions by NATO members in Europe will only grow in importance. A very important component of the NATO system is lower-tier missile defense. For example, the U.S., German, and Dutch Patriot units now deployed in Turkey provide critical deterrence against any spillover from the deteriorating conditions and instability in Syria. In fact, lower-tier systems are only going to grow in importance if NATO is to sustain a post-Afghanistan expeditionary posture. Poland’s investment in its national lower-tier system is an indicator of this trend. If built around a common platform, lower-tier systems will provide for effective national territorial defense and significantly augment NATO’s expeditionary capabilities.

The internal NATO challenge is this: Can the United States and Europe develop a fully integrated and shared NATO architecture for the full defense of Europe? BMD would then emerge as a defining solution for the territorial defense of Europe. Equally important is the politics of the process, especially the U.S.-Russia dimension. No other initiative affecting U.S. and European security is more important to the future of NATO than the Washington-led effort to build transatlantic missile defense architecture to counter the growing threat posed by the proliferation of missile technologies. The implementation of EPAA is necessary for the United States and NATO, not just because of its technical merits, but because it is an important element of America’s presence in Europe, as well as an enabler of America’s presence in NATO. The United States has every right to demand more from Europe when it comes to individual contributions to the NATO missile defense architecture. Washington should support those in the program who have heeded the call. It should explicitly recognize that, when it comes to NATO missile defense architecture, a more regional focus will enable those in Europe who want to invest to muster the political will to do so, and will encourage the growth of a shared user community.

In the end, the missile defense debate will reflect the U.S.-Russia relationship. For the system to work, the architecture must be Transatlantic in terms of its capabilities. The Obama Administration’s April 2013 decision to cancel the SM-3IIB interceptor, which was to be based in Poland and intercept high-altitude missiles aimed at the United States, has already raised doubts about congressional willingness continue funding a system aimed at solely defending Europe and U.S. interests in the region. The questions now are whether the United States remains committed to the system in the face of Russian pressure, and whether the Europeans can buttress the existing NATO architecture while improving interoperability and data exchange with the U.S. EPAA, extending the capability of ship-borne assets to contribute to upper-tier capability, and expanding the implementation of lower-tier capability.

Russia has developed the notion of “linkage” into an art form, and in the current conversation about nuclear arms reduction its crosshairs have been set squarely on NATO missile defense plans. For the future of NATO post-Afghanistan, this is no small thing. With the U.S. presence in Europe shrinking, missile defense plans remain a lynchpin in the Transatlantic alliance. If Russia undercuts these plans, it would be an achievement on par with the Soviet Union’s Cold War quest to pry the United States and Europe apart.

show comments
  • S.C. Schwarz

    Obama will, of course, cave in on missile defense immediately as he as done consistently so far. Our only hope is to stall until he is no longer president and pray that Biden doesn’t succeed him.

  • Nick Koblov

    There is no problem to Russia to sell some modern “non-nuclear” ballistic missles to… em, Iran, China, India and other Russia-friended countries…

  • Fat_Man

    The real question is why should the US continue to defend Europe free of charge. If the Europeans want to have a defense against missles, they should pay for it themselves. If they need technology, we should sell it to them at fair market prices. But, they need to defend themselves.

    And, while we are at it, we should end NATO. It costs money and does nothing to make us more secure. The cold war is over. We have no further need to protect either Russia or France from Germany. If Germany wants to control Russia and France we will not be worse off. Europe is not as utterly irrelevant as the Middle East, but it is not a center of dynamism anymore.

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