The case for rethinking NATO missile defense plans

At its November 2010 Lisbon summit, NATO agreed to establish a joint missile defense system to protect against long-range ballistic missile attack. That project is still in its early stages. The United States has deployed a first ship, armed with interceptors, in the Mediterranean. Over the next couple of years, similar naval deployments are scheduled to follow. In parallel, missile defense sites are being constructed in Poland and Romania. From 2018 on, the territory of all NATO members is supposed to be protected against limited missile attacks.

Because of uncertainties about future missile threats to NATO, a lack of support among US allies, and financial risks, however, the allies would be well advised to pause and reassess missile defense plans before proceeding with the system’s further implementation.

The NATO missile defense system is designed to protect against the threat by long-range ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction. It is not possible to assess the future threat posed to NATO territory by such weapons, and the system is officially not targeted against any specific state. But it is an open secret that the alliance wants to protect itself primarily against the potential threat from Iranian nuclear weapons. In November 2013, Iran and the P5+1—Britain, France, the United States, China, Russia, and Germany—struck an interim nuclear deal that, among other things, will halt construction of its Arak plutonium reactor and constrain its nuclear fuel production over the next six months. Should the P5+1 finally reach a comprehensive solution of the nuclear conflict with the new Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani, the most important justification for the NATO missile defense system will have vanished. Chances for success may be small. But NATO should wait for the outcome of the talks with Iran before proceeding with its missile defense plans.

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The degree of commitment by NATO allies to the US-led missile defense system is unclear. At Lisbon, the alliance committed itself to missile defense due to US pressure. In September 2013, Turkey shocked its NATO allies when it announced it would commence negotiations for the purchase of missile defense technology—from Beijing. Ankara was well aware of the fact that integrating Chinese military technology into the NATO system would never be acceptable to the United States. The proposed China deal may only be an expression of Turkish anger over US policies in Syria. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that Turkey views NATO’s missile defense system as a bargaining chip, rather than a core element of collective defense.

Finally, political support for missile defense depends on finances. Some European capitals will back the system only if the United States will shoulder the expense of developing, producing and deploying interceptors and sensors. NATO itself is expected to cover only the costs for command and control and for linking different components of the system. Additional national contributions to the alliance-wide system are voluntary. Up to now, the Obama administration has been willing to pick up the hardware costs, not least because the European-based elements will also contribute to defending the US homeland against limited missile strikes. But against the background of the US budget discussions, it appears increasingly doubtful that the US Congress will continue to support this policy. In June, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives called on Europeans to pick up part of the tab for establishing the Alliance missile defense system. Should the Obama administration follow this line, NATO would be faced with a difficult debate about burden sharing.

Against the background of this ambivalent situation, NATO allies should pause to consult again before deploying additional elements of the missile defense system, procuring missile defense ships, or reconfiguring existing ones to enable them to carry interceptors or sensors. By taking a time-out, allies could avoid unnecessary investments and minimize conflicts over the rationale behind the missile defense system.

Fortunately, European missile defense plans are adaptable and modular. In March, in reaction to the increased threat posed by the North Korean nuclear weapons program, Washington revised its plans for European missile defenses. The Obama administration canceled the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach and announced that instead it would increase the number of interceptors to be deployed on the US West Coast.

A pause in implementing missile defense plans would certainly be in Germany’s interest. Not least, it would create a political space to seek a resumption of discussions with Russia about missile defense cooperation. In addition, a difficult decision to equip German frigates with missile defense sensors and interceptors could be postponed.

To be sure, Central and Eastern European NATO members view any changes to missile defense plans skeptically. They see the project as a symbol of US commitment to Europe and as protection against Russia, which they perceive as a threatening neighbor. Nevertheless, it should also be in the interest of these countries to avoid unnecessary investments and conflicts.

A pause to think again would not alter NATO’s fundamental commitment to missile defense. But there are many good reasons to thoroughly reevaluate which portion of scarce defense resources allies want to commit to a joint missile defense system.

Editor’s note: A German-language version of this article was originally published on the German Institute for International and Security Affairs website.

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