Global Initiatives
11.11.10

NATO's Missile Defense Challenge

World Politics Review

By Richard Weitz, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor.


In the run-up to NATO's heads of state summit later this month in Lisbon, much of the discussion has focused on questions of the alliance's relevance and identity, with particular attention paid to the alliance's new Strategic Concept to be rolled out in Lisbon. But a more practical issue that will be discussed at the summit is whether to make comprehensive ballistic missile defense (BMD) an alliance-wide mission.

Despite a lack of enthusiasm in Turkey and continuing discontent in Russia and perhaps some other non-NATO countries, NATO governments generally support the Obama administration's phased adaptive approach to European missile defense. The new architecture, which entails bilateral agreements between Washington and select NATO allies near Iran, would cover the territory, population and military forces of all NATO members -- including those already within range of Iranian ballistic missiles.

Washington, however, would like the NATO leaders at Lisbon to match this U.S. contribution to alliance security with a collective commitment to support enhanced BMD cooperation as an alliance mission. This designation would result in the other NATO allies funding at least some of Europe's missile-defense architecture.

In particular, the Obama administration would like to expand NATO's Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) command-and-control system to give it the capability to support territorial missile defense in conjunction with U.S. national systems deployed near Europe. With this capacity, European countries could better integrate their BMD assets with those of the United States, allowing NATO radars to extend the sensor coverage of U.S. systems. Certain Aegis-capable European warships could also join with their U.S. Navy counterparts in providing joint BMD defenses of European ports, while European Patriot and other land-based missile interceptors could better network with U.S. interceptors.

Initially, the enhanced NATO coverage would help protect American military and civilian personnel in Europe. Eventually, the European-based NATO BMD assets would also strengthen the U.S. ability to defend North America from long-range missile strikes. The resulting linkage between European and American defenses would, it is hoped, reinforce the sense of common trans-Atlantic security.

To accomplish this objective, President Barack Obama and his team, building on the diplomatic foundation laid by the previous Bush administration, will need to overcome certain hurdles, including objections raised by various allies to an alliance-wide comprehensive missile-defense mission.

The administration appears to have resolved some earlier objections. In particular, NATO leaders now share American concerns about Iran's emerging potential to launch ballistic missiles, perhaps armed with a nuclear warhead, against European targets. In addition, the planned BMD architecture is sufficiently flexible that it can be adapted to deal with other possible missile threats that might emanate from the Middle East and North Africa.

Nonetheless, unease persists about certain aspects of collective NATO missile defense. Among them is the question of civilian control over such a system. To intercept a ballistic missile, a launch decision must be made in minutes, which could require pre-authorizing NATO commanders to attempt a missile interception without securing additional approval from civilian political leaders.

But some European officials are uneasy about allowing presumably American military leaders engage in what could be an act of war -- should the launch mistakenly target a civilian space rocket, for instance -- without requiring mandatory consultations with NATO political leaders, especially of the countries from which interceptors are launched or where potentially radioactive debris might fall. Yet, supporters of pursuing a comprehensive NATO BMD capacity note that even an erroneous launch decision is less fraught with risk than the alliance's current nuclear mission, which alliance members continue to accept.

Perhaps the most-serious remaining European concerns relate to money. Advocates of making missile defense a NATO mission note that the alliance has already committed to spending approximately $1 billion on the ALTBMD system, a command-and-control system currently designed only to protect NATO military forces. According to U.S. estimates, the alliance would only need to spend a few hundred million dollars more to expand the system's capacity to cover European members' national territory and population.

Some NATO leaders genuinely believe that they cannot afford this additional expense at a time when they are implementing emergency austerity budgets to cope with the global economic slowdown. In addition to the resulting lost tax revenue and additional countercyclical measures, the European governments are funding an unexpectedly costly military operation in Afghanistan and look set to adopt other new NATO commitments, such as enhanced collective cyber-defenses, at the summit.

Other European allies hope that Washington itself will eventually agree to pay entirely for the ALTBMD upgrade and other additional NATO missile-defense capabilities. They see the U.S. unilaterally developing a variety of BMD systems and think that the United States might offer the allies a missile-defense umbrella to complement the essentially unilateral extended nuclear deterrence guarantee Washington already provides its NATO -- and some non-NATO -- allies.

Finally, some European leaders fear that U.S. and NATO analysts have underestimated the likely aggregate expenses of NATO's acquiring and sustaining an effective comprehensive BMD capacity, particularly the risk of potential cost overruns that often occur following a procurement decision.

Of all the obstacles facing an alliance-wide NATO missile-defense system, the cost barrier will be the most difficult to overcome. To do so, advocates of missile defense will need to reinforce perceptions of a credible threat and demonstrate how NATO can leverage already acquired capabilities to implement such a system. Such an alliance-wide project focused on NATO's core purpose -- defending members from attack -- could offer a concrete example of the alliance's continued relevance, reinforcing cohesiveness at a time when it is increasingly frayed by the war in Afghanistan.


Photo: The first ground-based interceptor is lowered into its silo at the missile defense complex at Fort Greely, Alaska, July 2004 (Department of Defense photo).

Source: World Politics Review

Post-Crisis World Institute