Missile defense: The future of NATO burden sharing?

By Thomas Young | May 1, 2010

“If you are a NATO member, you have to work for collective security,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov recently remarked in response to reports that his country is positioning itself as a potential host for components of the reconfigured European missile defense system. Borisov’s statement encapsulates the spirit of NATO burden sharing: allies collectively shouldering the costs, risks, and responsibilities of maintaining adequate defenses.

Those who argue for keeping forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe (maintained under the auspices of NATO defense commitments) frequently cite the need for burden sharing. And despite claims that nuclear sharing undermines the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), many see the arrangement as a source of NATO cohesion that has helped prevent a two-tier alliance of nuclear haves and have-nots. Such a divide is further avoided by allies’ conventional contributions toward an effective nuclear strike package, including the provision of combat air support, reconnaissance, surveillance, and midair refueling.

Moreover, the stationing of nuclear weapons on the continent symbolically affirms the U.S. commitment to defend Europe. Although the perceived value of these weapons for Western European allies has waned considerably since the end of the Cold War, the security assurances that they embody continue to be important to countries on NATO’s eastern periphery (e.g., Poland, Estonia, and Turkey).

Historically, Washington has viewed deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe as a contribution to nonproliferation, arguing that it prevented allies such as Germany from seeking their own nuclear weapon capability. Although this role is less relevant today, it continues to be applicable to Turkey–an alliance member that attaches particular value to NATO security assurances. In particular, NATO can influence Ankara’s threat calculations (especially vis-à-vis Iran) by reassuring it of the alliance’s commitment to defend its territory–something that is currently achieved, in large part, by the forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons hosted at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

And yet, there’s a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that the weapons should be withdrawn. A decision will have to be made soon: The dual-capable aircraft tasked with carrying out NATO’s nuclear mission are unlikely to remain in service beyond 2020. If the weapons are removed, then it’s preferable that there be some form of replacement that makes withdrawal more palatable to NATO countries that face regional security challenges (i.e., Turkey).

Exactly what would constitute a suitable replacement for nonstrategic nuclear weapons? One suggestion is that the alliance simply rely on the extended deterrence offered to non-nuclear weapon allies by the strategic nuclear forces of the United States, Britain, and France. But this would contribute to perceptions of a two-tier alliance and could be seen as a weakening of Washington’s commitment to Europe’s defense. Another option is to reassure allies in Eastern Europe that there are conventional plans in place to protect them in the event of a crisis. Yet force planning of this type is likely to require military exercises–something that Moscow will vociferously oppose on the pretext that they’re aimed at Russia.

An alternative solution: missile defense. If countries agree to station interceptors on their territory or contribute missile defense assets such as Aegis ships, they would, in effect, be sharing the burdens and risks of collective defense in much the same way Germany, Turkey, and Italy do by hosting nonstrategic nuclear weapons. This option also has the added benefit of shifting the burden east toward those countries that are more skeptical of any symbolic weakening of the U.S. commitment to defend Europe. Further, the ability for mobile missile defense capabilities to be surged into regions at times of crisis creates the need for regular consultations within the Nuclear Planning Group or a similar NATO forum, thereby providing allies with continued influence over U.S. defense policy.

NATO is scheduled to begin drafting a new Strategic Concept later this year. Should it reassess alliance defense strategy along the lines suggested here, the role of nuclear weapons will most likely be lessened. Some may argue that this equates to replacing deterrence with defense, but that argument is unconvincing given that the forward-deployed weapons are nearly devoid of any deterrent value to begin with. (It would take at least a month to prepare a nuclear strike.) Therefore, replacing them with short- and medium-range ballistic missile defenses can only add value to the NATO defense posture.

There is, of course, one major obstacle to such a solution: Russia’s entrenched opposition to missile defense. But Moscow’s resistance can be overcome through cooperation on a joint NATO-Russia system. Vladimir Putin stated in July 2007 at the Kennebunkport summit with George W. Bush that “the relationship of our two countries would be raised to an entirely new level” should effective cooperation on missile defense become a reality. To make this happen, major obstacles to effective cooperation, including mutual mistrust, will have to be overcome. But this can be achieved with sustained high-level political engagement and continuous consultations within the NATO-Russia Council, a forum that can be given real purpose and tasked with achieving specific objectives on missile defense.

Either way, these obstacles must be surmounted. Given Moscow’s opposition to missile defense and its objections to the possibility of interceptors being placed in Romania, it will be extremely difficult for further progress to be made in bilateral arms control unless the development of a European missile defense architecture becomes a joint enterprise between Russia, the United States, and U.S. European allies. Washington should see this as an opportunity to steer relations with Moscow in a direction that is both post–Cold War and post-deterrence.

Missile defense isn’t an instant fix that will solve the conundrums of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and U.S.-Russian relations overnight. Convincing allies that missile defense architecture can replace nuclear weapons won’t be easy and achieving successful cooperation with Moscow will be even more difficult. But if these obstacles are overcome, it will create the next generation of burden sharing–one that could redefine U.S.-Russian relations, end the stalemate on nonstrategic weapons, and provide genuine protection to nations that are at risk from Iranian missiles.

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