NATO and the future of missile defense in Europe

By Pavel Podvig | October 28, 2010

At its Lisbon summit in November, NATO is expected to make two important decisions: whether to build its own missile defense system in Europe and whether missile defense should be part of the alliance’s core mission. Neither of these proposals has generated much controversy among the alliance members, so we can expect a reasonably strong commitment to missile defense to emerge from the summit. It is also possible that NATO will invite Russia to participate in the future system, and there is a good chance that Russia will accept the invitation. None of this, however, will change a simple fact about European missile defense: There is little chance that an actual missile defense system, which could protect the European continent, will ever materialize.

Even though it is unlikely that Europe will ever build its own missile defense system, the issue itself will not slip into oblivion. It is here to stay, with all its controversies, misunderstandings, and expectations.

Missile defense in Europe has a long and unhappy history that dates back to the days of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars. Most recently, NATO supported the Bush administration’s missile defense deployment plans at the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit, but the issue was fairly controversial at the time — many NATO countries were incensed with Poland and the Czech Republic for striking bilateral deals with the United States to deploy a radar and interceptors in these countries, circumventing formal NATO decision-making mechanisms. Eventually, calls for alliance solidarity, supported by a US promise to extend coverage of its missile defense to all NATO countries, helped calm the debate, and the United States secured an approval for its program.

The only problem with this plan was that the US deployment in Eastern Europe was never intended to provide defense for Europe — the US missile defense facilities in Europe were intended to protect US territory. The United States, understandably, opted not to draw too much attention to this, emphasizing, instead, that the system could, in some circumstances, protect certain corners of Europe. As it turned out, that was enough to win NATO support — Poland and the Czech Republic were both more interested in the presence of US troops and facilities in their countries than in actual missile threats, and the old NATO countries were quite ambivalent about missile defense altogether. Reasoning that a shield might as well protect parts of the continent, many European countries saw no harm in letting the United States proceed as long as it did not ask for major material support.

In 2009, however, the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the plan in the Czech Republic and Poland and introduce what is known as a “phased adaptive approach” considerably changed the missile defense landscape in Europe. Most importantly, this new approach meant that the United States dropped the pretense that its system in Europe would be there to protect European populations. The new system, which is supposed to counter regional missile threats, will be deployed to provide defense to US troops and military assets in Europe.

The US focus on protecting its own military left NATO in a somewhat awkward position — the alliance could no longer maintain the illusion that the US would protect Europe. From the start, it was a rather tenuous proposition, but now the Obama administration has made this clear: If Europe wants protection, Europe must build it. The United States, of course, will help its allies — this means that Europe is welcome to use the missile defense infrastructure that the US plans to build on the continent.

This is essentially the choice that NATO must make in Lisbon — whether the alliance wants to commit to a program that would expand the coverage of the US missile defense system. This does not seem to be a very tough decision, especially if you believe that the price of this expansion is about 200 million euros split among 28 NATO countries over a 10-year period, as the NATO leadership claims it is. (The deal looks like an even better bargain if you know that about 40 percent of this cost would be covered by the United States — this is how the financing of NATO programs work.) It is a safe bet that the NATO countries will approve the plan with much enthusiasm at the November meeting. However, it is an equally safe bet that the plan will never materialize.

The first problem is that the cost — 200 million euros — is hardly a realistic estimate. It has been mentioned a lot, but nobody can say what kind of analysis this estimate is based on. It is true that the US infrastructure would be quite a substantial contribution, but the US part of the missile defense system has a much easier mission — protecting troops and military assets is less demanding than protecting populations. The US decision to home in on this mission, in fact, made a lot of sense, as the task of protecting the military is something that a defense system can actually do. But if Europe is serious about offering protection to its citizens, it would need to pay accordingly, only to find out that shielding an entire population is prohibitively expensive, if at all possible.

This points to the second problem with the plan: Europe has never been enthusiastic about missile defense, partly because Europeans are traditionally skeptical about technological fixes of security problems, and partly because European governments have never had the money to spend on these programs. So, even if the estimate of 200 million euros were correct, it is doubtful that Europe would be able to come up with the money.

Even though it is unlikely that Europe will ever build its own missile defense system, the issue itself will not slip into oblivion. It is here to stay, with all its controversies, misunderstandings, and expectations. Despite this, missile defense might play a positive role, as it is a topic that bolsters NATO’s search for a new unifying mission; there is hope that, at some point, a missile defense system might replace nuclear weapons deployed in Europe as a primary means of “alliance cohesion.” It could also provide a useful point of contact for discussions among Russia, the United States, and NATO on their strategic relationships. If, in fact, NATO’s embrace of missile defense helps move the discussion in the direction of broader cooperation and dialogue in Europe, it would be as good of an outcome as one could expect. As for the actual system, there is no harm in not building it — it won’t be able to offer much protection anyway.

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