“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
NATO and Missile Defense: Conspicuous Vagueness

Arms Control NOW

By Scoville Fellow Rob Golan-Vilella

Recently, the issue of NATO missile defense capabilities has come to the fore. The United States is hoping that at November's NATO summit in Lisbon, the alliance will officially approve a plan to turn the U.S. Phased Adaptive Approach into the centerpiece of a comprehensive NATO missile defense system. This plan has been endorsed by NATO's leadership. However, there is a high degree of vagueness about just where the threat comes from that necessitates such a system. The alliance's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, wrote on Tuesday:

Missiles pose an increasing threat to our populations, territory and deployed forces. Over 30 countries have or are acquiring missiles that could be used to carry not just conventional warheads, but also weapons of mass destruction. Some of those missiles can already reach European cities, and the problem will only get worse.

Nowhere in his article is there an explanation of who these 30 countries are or whether there is any plausible reason to believe that any of them might want to attack NATO countries with ballistic missiles.

Now, the obvious answer is Iran. Europeans very much have an interest in shielding themselves from the prospect of an Iranian ballistic missile attack (though it's also unclear what Ayatollah Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad would possibly hope to accomplish by ordering or threatening such an attack). But the really striking thing about the recent push for a NATO missile shield is that its rationale goes beyond Iran. At an event hosted by the Atlantic Council, Missile Defense Agency Director Patrick O'Reilly argued that even if the Iranian issue were solved politically, NATO would still need missile defense. As General O'Reilly said:

It's not just concerns about nation-states – it's concerns about proliferation, and it's concerns about the simplicity and the advancement of these systems. So with that, I don't see a path for the threat and the need for these systems to go away, unfortunately, if they're within the range of a system, of a threat missile.

Nearly every other speaker at the event agreed with General O'Reilly on this point. Notably, none of them offered any further specifics about who the states or non-state actors of concern might be, with the exception of one brief reference to Syria.

The problem is that this type of analysis can be used to justify anything. Of course we cannot predict future threats with perfect accuracy. But framing the need for NATO missile defense in vague terms like "ballistic missile proliferation" does not help O'Reilly's or Rasmussen's case. As the classic saying goes, threats are made up of capabilities plus intentions. Yet intentions do not seem to factor into O'Reilly's or Rasmussen's assessments at all. Indeed, their logic suggests that as long as ballistic missiles exist anywhere in the world, NATO will need missile defense, because we don't know whose intentions might change or which new organization might acquire these weapons. This is a recipe for a program that will justify its own existence forever whether or not there is any demonstrable need for it. While some missile defense advocates might cheer this prospect, the rest of us should be concerned about committing ourselves to spending large amounts of money on a defensive program without a clear definition of who we think we might need to defend ourselves against.

In short, while the proposed missile defense system might be a great idea in a world of unlimited resources, the burden of proof is on its proponents to demonstrate why and when it is needed and explain with much more specificity exactly who it is meant to defend against – a task they have failed to address thus far.