NATO Fields Interceptors Without Russia

Tom Z. Collina

NATO now has an “interim capability” for its U.S.-built missile interceptor system, the alliance announced at its May 20-21 summit in Chicago, but the future of NATO-Russian cooperation on missile defense remains uncertain.

The announcement of NATO’s capability, which is part of the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach, was expected, as was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to attend the summit in protest. (See ACT, April 2012.) Russia had wanted the cooperation agreement to be worked out before NATO went ahead with the interceptor system.

When NATO leaders first endorsed U.S. missile interceptor plans for Europe in late 2010, NATO and Russia agreed to explore ways to cooperate on missile defenses. Since then, however, the two sides have been unable to agree on the specifics of that cooperation, with Moscow seeking binding assurances that the system would not undermine its security, which Washington refused to provide. Although there has been no agreement in this area, both sides say that the door to cooperation remains open.

According to a May 20 White House summary, “interim capability” means that, in a crisis, NATO could assume operational command of the U.S. missile interceptor system in Europe, currently composed of an Aegis-equipped ship with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IA interceptors in the Mediterranean Sea, an AN/TPY-2 radar in Turkey, and a command and control center in Germany.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been directed to transfer operational control of the radar to NATO, but SM-3-armed ships in the area would operate under NATO control only “when necessary,” the summary said. NATO designated its most senior military commander, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, to oversee the missile defense mission, the White House said.

Future phases of the European system include increasingly capable SM-3 interceptor deployments at sea and on land in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018). The current interim capability would be followed by “initial operational capability” in 2015 and “full operational capability” in 2018, the White House said. Phase four of the system, including SM-3 IIB interceptors with some capability against long-range missiles, would be deployed in 2020.

“NATO will now have an operationally meaningful ballistic missile defense mission. It will be limited in the initial phase, but it will expand over time,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said at a May 20 press briefing at the summit. “It will, as of today, provide real protection for parts of NATO Europe against ballistic missile attack,” he said. Daalder declined to specify which nations in southern Europe would be protected, explaining that “a wide variety of places” could be protected because “the ship can be moved.”

The next SM-3 interceptor to be deployed, the IB, hit its target in a May 10 test, according to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Last September, the system failed in its first intercept test. This interceptor would be deployed on land in Romania by 2015 and on ships at sea.

Richard Lehner, an MDA spokesman, declined to say whether the test included countermeasures such as decoys that an enemy likely would use to try to overwhelm the defense. “We don’t divulge presence of countermeasures for any missile defense tests,” he told Reuters May 10.

Moscow’s Concerns

Russia has repeatedly expressed concern that the SM-3 IIB, which is supposed to be deployed in 2020 and is still on the drawing board, could fly fast enough to threaten its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in western Russia. At a May 3-4 missile defense conference in Moscow, Nikolai Makarov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, raised the possibility of delivering pre-emptive strikes against NATO missile defense systems if the alliance goes ahead with current plans. In addition, Russia tested a new ICBM on May 23 that the military said was designed to evade U.S. defenses.

In its declaration at the Chicago summit, NATO sought to reassure Russia by stating that “NATO missile defense is not directed against Russia and will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities.” The declaration said the allies regretted “recurrent Russian statements on possible measures directed against NATO’s missile defense system” and welcomed Russia’s willingness to continue dialogue “on the future framework for missile defense cooperation.”

In addition to the legally binding commitment that NATO missile interceptors would not be targeted at Russia, Moscow has been seeking limits on numbers, velocities, and deployment locations of SM-3 interceptors. In one of the Russian presentations at the Moscow conference, Col. Evgeny Ilyin said ship-based interceptors in the Baltic Sea or Norwegian Sea traveling at speeds greater than five kilometers per second would be “a real threat to the Russian deterrence capability.” Slower interceptors do not pose the same level of concern, Ilyin said.

House Pushes East Coast Site

Meanwhile, on May 18, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which would increase spending on the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system by $460 million above the $903 million requested by the Department of Defense. Of that additional amount, the bill would authorize $100 million to study the deployment of missile interceptors on the U.S. East Coast by late 2015. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this new project would cost $3.6 billion over five years.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee and the leading proponent of an East Coast site, based his position on a forthcoming report by the National Research Council, an independent advisory group to the U.S. government. However, a summary of the report states that the current West Coast interceptor system “has serious shortcomings” and would have to be completely redesigned, retested, and rebuilt before it could be installed on the East Coast, making the 2015 time frame appear unrealistic.

The main conclusions of the council’s report, called “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives,” were made public in an April 30 letter from report co-chairs L. David Montague and Walter Slocombe to the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The United States already has one site in Alaska and one in California, with a total of 30 deployed interceptors, to handle potential future attacks from Iran and North Korea. The GMD system has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, with two failures in 2010. Neither Iran nor North Korea has yet deployed long-range missiles that could reach the United States.

The Pentagon did not request funding for an East Coast site, and on May 10, the nation’s top military officer said there was no need for a third site. The current program “is adequate and sufficient to the task,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news briefing. “So I don’t see a need beyond what we’ve submitted in the last budget.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee, in preparing its version of the fiscal 2013 defense bill, did not authorize an East Coast site.