“It will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
NATO’s Missile Defense Plan Must Adapt to the Real World
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Arms Control NOW

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill.

One of the biggest challenges for NATO at its July 8-9 summit will be to adopt measures that reassure allies in the face of Russian intimidation without provoking an escalation in already high tensions between Russia and the West. Given that missile defense has been a driver of tensions between Moscow and Washington since Ronald Reagan launched his Star Wars plan to render ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete,” one of the best ways to achieve reassurance and avoid provocation would be to alter the existing timetable for deploying more capable missile defenses in Europe 

In September 2009, President Obama announced a European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to deploying U.S. missile defenses in Europe, tailored to the evolution of ballistic missile threats from the Middle East. The first phase was to introduce Aegis interceptors to the region on ships in 2011, to be followed by deploying increasingly capable Aegis systems ashore in Romania and Poland in two additional phases — targeted for completion by 2015 and 2018 — and finally Aegis systems, which could intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles, by 2020. The principal goal of this approach was to enable NATO to defend against what seemed to be the likely development through the decade of ever longer-range Iranian ballistic missiles, ultimately armed with nuclear warheads. 

By March 2013, the Obama administration decided that reinforcing the number of strategic interceptors deployed in Alaska against North Korean contingences was the most appropriate reaction to developments in U.S. missile defense technology and evolution of the proliferation threat to the United States and its allies. As a part of this adaptation to real-world changes, the administration shelved the proposed fourth phase of the EPAA, which would have deployed strategic interceptors in Europe.

With the achievement of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015, the prospect of nuclear-armed Iranian missiles appearing in the next decade declined precipitously. Consequently, NATO governments now project a much lower level of threat from Iran to the heart of Europe over the medium term than they did six years ago, when the 2018 Phase 3 startup date was established for Aegis Ashore. Moreover, the Iranian ICBM flight tests predicted by 2015 never materialized. Considering that the higher speed Aegis missiles to be deployed in Poland are designed to intercept longer-range missiles than Iran has developed, it is high time for another course adjustment in EPAA implementation. 

In response to these actual developments, the recently released report of the U.S.-Russian-German Deep Cuts Commission called for postponement of EPAA Phase 3 deployments, stressing that such a move would be consistent with official NATO policy as expressed in the 2014 NATO summit declaration; “Should international efforts reduce the threats posed by ballistic missile proliferation, NATO missile defence can and will adapt accordingly.”

Indeed, to adhere inflexibly to the original Phase 3 schedule, despite dramatic diminution of the Iranian threat, would unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with Moscow, which has been repeatedly assured by Washington that the EPAA has nothing to do with Russia. 

Moscow has long suspected that the narrowly defined objective of U.S. missile defenses was a subterfuge, a suspicion aggravated by U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and U.S. refusal subsequently to consider any legally binding limits on strategic missile defense expansion.

Given the technical inability of Europe-based EPAA interceptors to engage Russian strategic forces, Moscow’s accusations seem either insincere or paranoid. But as explained by Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, NATO continuing to work on Aegis missile defenses makes it appear to Moscow “that the system was directed against Russia from the very outset and not against Iran or any other hypothetical threat in the Middle East.” He adds: “This Iranian factor creates additional anti-Western momentum in Russia, which is widely used by state propaganda.”

Other measures to reinforce NATO member states on Russia’s periphery, such as rotating troops into the Baltic states, may be required to provide reassurance. These measures could include deploying additional Patriot interceptors in Poland to defend against Russian tactical ballistic and cruise missiles. But Moscow would consider these measures less threatening to its nuclear deterrent than the EPAA Phase 3 deployment in Poland of more advanced Aegis interceptors than those currently deployed in Romania as part of Phase 2 of the EPAA. 

Both houses of Congress recently passed legislation to broaden the long-standing policy of building U.S. missile defenses only against “limited” missile threats, not against a massive and deliberate Russian attack. 

This ill-considered move makes it even more important for NATO to act consistent with its stated rationale for EPAA deployments. Considering the consequences of cavalierly discarding this rationale, the Alliance should shelve Phase 3 — not only to mitigate tensions with Russia but also to preserve its own honor. 

Thielmann is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association and a former office director in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.