NATO Set to Back Expanded Missile Defense

Tom Z. Collina

Ahead of next year’s planned deployment of a U.S. medium-range missile interceptor system in Europe, NATO member states appear poised to endorse an expanded missile defense mission at their Nov. 19-20 summit in Lisbon and to invite Russia to play a role. The U.S. system would include a mobile radar in Turkey, which Ankara has yet to approve.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after NATO’s Oct. 14 foreign and defense ministers meeting in Brussels, “I believe we are nearing a consensus at the Lisbon summit for NATO to have a capability to defend all of NATO-Europe against the threat of a missile attack,” adding that he hopes “that soon we can add territorial missile defense cooperation to the list” of issues on the NATO-Russia agenda.

NATO members have engaged in discussions for years on the role of missile defense in alliance policy, most recently in 2007 when the Bush administration proposed to site 10 ground-based strategic missile interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the CzechRepublic to counter a potential Iranian long-range missile threat. Following a policy review, in September 2009 the Obama administration changed direction in favor of a larger number of shorter-range, sea-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors around Europe and land-based SM-3 batteries in Romania and Poland, collectively known as the Phased Adaptive Approach. The SM-3 interceptors, the Obama administration argued, are more reliable and could be deployed more quickly to address Iran’s existing short- and medium-range ballistic missile force. (See ACT, March 2010.)

“The studies have been done, the data are well known, and the affordability is clear,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said after the Brussels meeting. “It is time for a decision.”

Although none of NATO’s 28 members has announced opposition to the plan, its approval is not automatic. The missile defense language will be part of the broader revised NATO Strategic Concept, which covers all alliance military and nuclear policies, and must be passed by consensus.

Some alliance members suggested at the Brussels meeting that NATO policy on missile defense should be linked to changes in NATO’s approach to nuclear weapons reductions, particularly to the fate of forward-deployed U.S. tactical nuclear bombs stored in five European member states. “We think missile defense is basically a good idea, but we also believe that matters like arms control should be and will be an important component” of NATO defense policy, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told the Associated Press Oct. 14. The German government has been advocating a shift in alliance policy that would open the way for the removal of U.S. tactical weapons, arguing that the U.S. missile interceptors in Europe would mean that tactical bombs are no longer needed to assure some central European NATO members of the United States’ ongoing commitment to alliance defense.

French Defense Minister Hervé Morin indicated that the concept of expanded missile defenses would be endorsed in Lisbon, but he compared it to the Maginot Line of fixed defenses that failed to prevent Germany’s invasion of France during World War II. “The best way to guard against an apocalypse is to be in a position to gain respect from having credible military capabilities,” he told reporters. French officials have been arguing against reducing the role of nuclear weapons in NATO policy, in part to deflect political pressure on Paris to reduce its own nuclear arsenal.

Missile Defense Radar in Turkey?

In addition to new U.S. SM-3 interceptors in Romania and Poland, the last remaining land-based piece of the Obama administration’s plan is a mobile X-band radar to be deployed in southeastern Europe by next year. The radar is critical to the overall system, U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly told an Atlantic Council-sponsored forum Oct. 12. The X-band radar would be part of a test next summer “to validate that all of these capabilities work together in order to have your initial substantiation of capability for the Phased Adaptive Approach,” he said.

Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and neighbor of Iran, is the United States’ first choice to host the radar, but Ankara has yet to commit. Turkey is worried about appearing to sign a bilateral pact with Washington that is designed to counter Middle Eastern nations. “We told the U.S. officials that Iran and Syria should not be cited as ‘threats’ for NATO’ s planned missile shield,” an unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Turkish Weekly Oct. 15.

Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Turkish officials on the sidelines of the Brussels meeting to discuss whether Turkey would host the radar on its territory. “I would say that we are not putting pressure on the Turks,” Gates told reporters Oct. 14, “but we are having continuing conversations with them as one of our allies.” Bulgaria is another siting option for the radar.

The United States does not need official NATO approval to move ahead with its plan to deploy SM-3 interceptors and radars to support them, but U.S. officials recognize that leaders of some states, such as Turkey, might be more comfortable participating in the U.S. system once it has been integrated into NATO.

“We are not asking for [NATO] to buy additional systems that they already are not planning on procuring,” O’Reilly said at the Atlantic Council event. “We want there to be political buy-in by our NATO allies on this issue,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy Frank Rose said at the same forum. The phased approach “will then become the U.S. contribution to a NATO effort,” Rose said, adding that the radar host nation would not be announced until after the Lisbon summit.

Cost Concerns

Although it has yet to endorse the concept of an expanded U.S. missile interceptor system for all NATO member states, the alliance has already approved a joint, short-range (less than 1,000 kilometers) missile defense system to protect troops. Under the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) plan, NATO will oversee command and control of member state-based missile defense assets, such as short-range interceptors (mainly U.S.-origin Patriot interceptors) in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. However, future additions to this system are still on the drawing board. For example, a joint, $16.5 billion U.S.-German-Italian program to develop a European short-range interceptor to replace the Patriot, called the Medium Extended Air Defense System, is not scheduled for deployment until late in the decade and reportedly may get cut due to heavy budget pressures in Europe and the United States.

In response to European concerns about the cost of expanding NATO’s missile defense mission, Rasmussen wrote in an Oct. 12 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune that “missile defense won’t be cheap, but neither will it break the bank.” He said the current ALTBMD program costs NATO $1.1 billion over 14 years and that, for less than $280 million more over 10 years, this program could be integrated with the U.S. system and thus would be able to augment the current mission of protecting NATO troops by defending European populations and territory as well.

“With a relatively small investment, all the allies could plug into the multi-billion-dollar United States system, share the benefits of increased security, and demonstrate a shared commitment to our mutual defense. That is an attractive return on investment,” Rasmussen said.

By comparison, the MDA is spending about $10 billion per year on all missile defense programs, with much of that geared toward European-based systems. Initial phases of the phased approach would provide a layer of defense against medium-range missiles (1,000-5,500 kilometers) on top of U.S. and NATO short-range defenses. According to the MDA, by 2011 the United States plans to deploy 23 Aegis ships with over 100 SM-3 IA missile interceptors  and an AN/TPY-2 X-band radar in southeastern Europe. The first land-based SM-3 site would be added in Romania by 2015 and the second in Poland by 2018. Between 2015 and 2020, the United States would deploy Theater High Altitude Area Defense mobile interceptors in Europe as well.

In the fourth phase, the SM-3 IIB interceptor would be deployed beginning in 2020 on land with enhanced capabilities, giving it “a very good opportunity to intercept ICBMs too,” O’Reilly Oct. 12 said at the Atlantic Council event, referring to intercontinental (long-range) ballistic missiles. “I have been to Moscow to show capability of the [Phased Adaptive Approach] all the way through phase four so [the Russians] clearly understand its limits. It’s a very good capability against a threat within a couple of thousand kilometers.… [I]t’s not a very good capability if you’re trying to defeat a threat that is deep inside Russia,” he said. The United States also deploys 30 long-range interceptors in Alaska and California, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, to counter a limited, unsophisticated ICBM attack.

Obama administration and European officials are sensitive to the fact that the United States is essentially footing the bill for missile defense in Europe. To address congressional concerns about burden sharing, U.S. officials stress that, in addition to countering missile threats to Europe, the phased approach provides defensive capabilities for the continental United States. “Deploying the AN/TPY-2 radar in the first phase of the approach will augment the ability of our existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system to intercept any future long-range missiles launched from the Middle East,” Rose told the Atlantic Council audience. “By 2020 we will supplement that capability when we deploy the SM-3 Block IIB missile in Europe,” he said.

Japan and the United States on Oct. 28 conducted a joint test of the SM-3 BlockIA missile, which successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target off the coast of Hawaii, according to the MDA.  Japan, which is primarily concerned about North Korean missile capability, is also cooperating with the United States on developing the larger and more capable SM-3 Block IIA, for possible deployment in 2018.

The View From Moscow

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, invited weeks ago to attend the Lisbon summit, told reporters Oct. 19 that he would attend the Nov. 20 NATO-Russia Council meeting but that he had concerns about missile defense cooperation. “We are now evaluating the idea of this proposal, but I think that NATO itself needs to understand in what form it sees Russia joining this system, what it will bring, in what manner an agreement can be reached, and how to proceed further,” he told reporters after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Deauville, France. “Only based on the evaluation of this proposal can we give an answer on how we will proceed with regard to the idea of European missile defense,” Medvedev said.

Further clarifying Moscow’s concerns, Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told Itar-Tass news agency Oct. 15, “We need to understand what this means in principle—the parameters of the missile defense system, who it will be aimed against, who will press the button.” The question of which country or countries have ultimate authority to launch interceptors under a “joint” missile defense system has been a long-standing issue for Russia. “You have one button and 28 fingers. I even know which finger will press the button,” Rogozin said. “This is a U.S. system on the European soil,” he said.

Russian leaders also have expressed concern that later phases of U.S. missile defense plans would be capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs. U.S. and NATO leaders say the system is not aimed at Russia, but at Iran. Russia, however, has “problems with our NATO colleagues already having branded Iran ‘a bad guy,’” Rogozin said.

Russia, which is not a NATO member, does not have an official say in whether the alliance expands its missile defense mission, nor is Moscow expected to agree in Lisbon to cooperate on a specific missile defense proposal. But Moscow may agree to start a process for greater NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation.

Joint Missile Threat Assessment

To help reassure Moscow about future U.S. missile interceptor deployments, the United States has renewed discussions with Russian officials on possible ways to cooperate on missile defense and “hope[s] to expand that cooperation both bilaterally and through the NATO-Russia Council,” Rose said at the Atlantic Council meeting. The United States and Russia announced efforts in June to share early-warning data on missile launches (see ACT, July/August 2010), and they have been working on a joint threat assessment of global missile programs to establish a baseline for further cooperation.

“The purpose of the joint assessment is to increase our mutual understanding of the ballistic missile threat,” Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Washington Times Oct. 19. “There is nothing in these discussions that contemplates limits on missile defense, but rather cooperation between the U.S. and Russia,” he said.

“The reality is Iranian missiles with nuclear warheads are…actually a bigger danger, to Russia than they are to the United States because [Iran does not] have intercontinental ballistic missiles yet,” Gates told Interfax Sept. 14. Russia disagrees. “For now it is enough to hold consultations and analyze missile challenges rather than panic and build something immediately,” Rogozin said Oct. 15. The joint threat assessment will be released late this year or in early 2011, Rose said.

The administration is still open to collaborating with Moscow on use of a radar facility in Azerbaijan, Gates told Interfax. “We have been very interested in the Gabala radar. We’ve had conversations about it. I think we’ve sent technical experts there to examine the radar. We’ve talked about a data center, a data exchange center in Moscow where all of this information on missile launches could be shared,” he said.