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Will pinning NATO’s security to missile defence lead to more cohesion?

A steady and incremental growth of ballistic missile capabilities is taking place fairly close to the perimeter of NATO as several countries improve the range and accuracy of their missiles. Technical barriers, such as export controls harmonized under the Missile Technology Control Regime, have not prevented these programmes from blossoming, and there is no meaningful international arms control effort to curb or reduce missile proliferation.

In these circumstances several states have examined how to defend against a putative missile threat, and NATO has been examining the desirability and feasibility of collective missile defence since 2001. After a period of tension, it appears that the collective missile defence envisioned by NATO can square with the United States plans for missile defence in Europe, and possibly even satisfy Russia—if certain key questions are resolved.

At the summit meeting of heads of state and government in Lisbon on 19–20 November, NATO adopted its new strategic concept, ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’. In broad terms, the document indicates the Alliance’s response to new and emerging security challenges and is intended to guide the future collective political and military development of the Allies. It establishes the commitment to develop the capability to defend NATO members’ populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a ‘core element’ of collective defence, and to do so in ways that contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance. Delivering on this commitment relies in large part on the direction of the US plans for missile defence in Europe.

Separate from NATO, the United States has been investing heavily in a missile defence programme for many years in anticipation of the potential future threat from long-range ballistic missiles. US missile defence architecture includes capabilities deployed in the continental USA and in Europe. However, related overseas assets were put in place under bilateral agreements between the USA and the countries concerned and are not part of a collective NATO approach. That some states enjoyed a higher level of protection than others has for some time raised questions about whether a differentiation among Allies could undermine the solidarity that has been a trademark of NATO.

In September 2009 the Obama Administration introduced a ‘phased, adapted approach’—an adjusted missile defence policy that emphasizes defending US Allies in Europe, while continuing research on the long-term objective of comprehensive missile defence. These revised US plans—which reflect the assessment that Iranian missile programmes are progressing faster than previously expected—would extend protection to more countries and could reinforce the indivisibility of NATO security and underline solidarity through broad participation (e.g. in hosting infrastructure, contributing equipment and forces and cost sharing). Furthermore, the new US plan would ensure the continued physical presence of US armed forces in Europe under a NATO banner, which has symbolic importance and anchors transatlantic defence ties.

Should NATO seek to take advantage of US missile defence plans in Europe, it would need to resolve several difficult and interrelated problems.

First, as a practical matter, when building a missile defence system NATO will have to identify who and what it is defending against. While the USA clearly designates the countries of greatest concern, NATO’s collective threat assessments note the trend of ballistic missile proliferation without focusing on the intentions of any country. NATO currently states that it has no common external enemies. The choices will have diplomatic and political consequences as well as financial and technical implications because building missile defence in any particular direction will need to be explained to the target states.

NATO seeks a constructive partnership with Russia, and the new strategic concept proposes practical cooperation in areas of shared interests, including missile defence. However, at the Lisbon Summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it clear that, for Russia, the choice could only be full participation in European missile defence at all levels (an option that is not currently being offered) or no cooperation at all.

Historically, NATO has not seen either Iran or Syria as a military threat, and at least one NATO member (Turkey) does not want to build its future relationship with either of these countries—which are not mentioned in the Summit documents in the context of missile defence—on confrontation and deterrence.

Second, if the rationale for any specific choice of missile defence architecture is to be elaborated inside the Alliance, there are also question marks about the feasibility of defences as currently envisaged. The new strategic concept is compatible with a NATO feasibility study which found that improved sensor technologies and interceptor capabilities can provide a meaningful capability against the kinds of missile forces developing in the Middle East. However, there are experts who point out that the feasibility study was carried out by some of the companies that hope to build the new missile defence systems and doubt whether these findings are robust.

Third, NATO will have to balance the role of missile defence against other elements of its strategic posture, including diplomacy, deterrence and the role of direct military action. If it is necessary to defend against emerging missile forces, then waiting to intercept the missiles post-launch may not be the best option if practiced in isolation. However, combining missile interceptors with a capability to destroy missiles prior to launch using advanced conventional weapons (possibly including conventionally armed ballistic missiles) is yet to be fully evaluated inside the Alliance.

Emerging concerns about the collective commitment to other aspects of NATO’s military posture can be reduced if missile defence is part of a balanced approach alongside nuclear deterrence and a prudent investment in conventional firepower that can be concentrated at the periphery of the Alliance as required. Regular contingency planning for the use of conventional forces and a pattern of field exercises that demonstrate their efficiency and effectiveness would further reinforce this balanced approach. However, this could increase NATO’s difficulty in explaining its new policies in neighbouring countries and regions without causing alarm.

NATO itself cannot initiate discussions on the role of arms control in reducing the requirement for current and future missile programmes and capacities. However, NATO, which now conducts operations far from its own borders, could seek opportunities to reduce any concern that it poses a military threat to adjacent countries and regions.

It seems that NATO is about to place the USA's phased, adapted approach at the heart of its missile defence architecture. However, if this is to increase the cohesion of the Alliance there is still work to do in addressing other, unresolved strategic issues.



Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.