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Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Missile Defences Unite NATO Internally, and with Russia

NATO Monitor has covered the ongoing debate over missile defences. When the Bush administration proposed siting elements of its mid-course ballistic missile defences (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Alliance was badly divided.

Many in Europe were dismayed that the future of a strategic programme with obvious security implications for the entire alliance was being dealt with at a bilateral level. For many this was yet another blow against NATO by the US, and the political damage caused by this and other unilateral Bush administration actions will take years to heal.

There was deep concern at deteriorating relations with Russia, and the reduction in security that a hostile relationship entails, something fundamentally at odds with the stated intention of deploying a BMD system to Europe in the first place. Also, the Europeans stressed the indivisibility of Alliance security since, even if the mid-course BMD system worked as advertised (which it has never done), it would not cover south-Eastern Europe. Worse, debris from intercepted warheads would likely fall on Belgium and the surrounding area (just as debris from the Pacific system intercepting a missile from North Korea would fall on western Canada).

There were abortive attempts to link Russia in with the BMD proposals, as the Russians proposed the use of some of their radars. The Bush administration rejected these ideas – claiming (against the advice of scientists) that the Russian systems weren’t well placed. There was a stated intention to somehow merge the strategic system with the incipient NATO theatre missile defence system. But the whole thing looked like (and indeed was) a desperate attempt ex post facto to justify Bush administration actions through an Alliance lens.

Then, this September, to the dismay of Poland and the Czech Republic and the delight of other Alliance members, the Obama administration announced that it was halting the European deployments. This has formed part of summer discussions with Russia on strategic issues. In place of the mid-course BMD system, the Obama administration announced an intention the existing ship-based Aegis defense system in the Mediterranean. This is designed to intercept short- and intermediate-range missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, and the deployment is clearly aimed at Iran. The mid-course proposal has been pushed off into the future. There are technical problems with the new proposal, as the Union of Concerned Scientists  noted:

A key technical problem with this approach is that the Aegis interceptors (current and planned) also are designed to intercept missiles above the atmosphere and therefore, would be vulnerable to decoys and other countermeasures, just like the current ground-based interceptors.

However, the main purpose of the system is reassuring Allies about US intent to defend Europe, and to do so in a NATO framework. A side-benefit in this case is to be non-threatening to Russia. In this, the new system has been remarkably successful. As NATO Monitor reported back in October, Allies have been reassured by the consultations that the Pentagon has undertaken on this issue, in stark contrast to the previous administration. Their concerns about relations with Russia have also been answered.

Indeed, as Ria Novosti reports:

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed hope on Thursday that the alliance and Russia would establish a joint missile defense system by 2020. Addressing students at the Moscow State University of International Relations, Rasmussen said the joint shield would unite Russia and NATO politically and ensure nuclear security between the two parties.

They had previously reported after the NATO-Russia Council meeting on December 4, that:

Russia and NATO have formed a working group on missile defense issues and the first meeting will be held in January, Russia's envoy to the military alliance said on Friday. Dmitry Rogozin was speaking after a Russia-NATO Council meeting in Brussels."A program on military cooperation, including the creation of a working group on missile defense, was adopted," he told journalists. He said the first meeting would take place "straight after the Christmas holidays."

At NATO HQ, on the trip for bloggers just after the Ministerial and another trip a few days later, I heard several suggestions from national delegations and from international HQ staff, that missile defence would be the best way to show Iran that the Alliance is serious about its defence. Some went so far as to suggest that the deployment of the new Obama missile defences, and other elements, would be the best way to show US commitment to Europe if the Alliance agrees the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons in 2010 – and that indeed in the post-9/11 world, they are the most useful way to do so.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that the text on missile defence in the Foreign Ministers’ Final Statement says:

14. The proliferation of ballistic missiles poses an increasing threat to Allies’ populations, territory and forces. Given the central importance of the Alliance’s collective defence mission to ensure our security and protect our populations, territory and forces against the threat of armed attack, including from ballistic missiles, missile defence plays an important role for the Alliance as part of a broader response to counter ballistic missile threats. We welcome the new phased adaptive approach of the United States to missile defence, which further reinforces NATO’s central role in missile defence in Europe. This approach would further anchor European missile defence work in NATO, which continues to bear in mind the principle of the indivisibility of Alliance security as well as NATO solidarity.

15. NATO’s current Theatre Missile Defence programme (ALTBMD) will facilitate the integration of missile defence elements from nations in order to protect deployed troops. Heads of State and Government, at their last Summit, tasked the Council in Permanent Session to identify and undertake the policy, military and technical work related to a possible expanded role of the Theatre Missile Defence programme beyond the protection of NATO deployed forces to include territorial missile defence. Such a role would be a key milestone towards providing territorial missile defence in Europe.

16. Heads of State and Government, at their last Summit, tasked the Council in Permanent Session, taking into account the Bucharest Summit tasking, to present recommendations comprising architecture alternatives for consideration at the next Summit; these should draw upon the work already done and the United States’ phased adaptive approach. If the Alliance decides to develop a NATO missile defence capability in Europe to protect populations and territory, the United States’ phased adaptive approach would provide a valuable national contribution to that capability and, thus, to Alliance security.

17. We continue to support increased cooperation between NATO and Russia on missile defence including maximum transparency and reciprocal confidence-building measures. We reaffirm the Alliance’s readiness to explore the potential for linking United States, NATO and Russian missile defence systems at an appropriate time. The United States’ new approach provides enhanced possibilities to do this.


As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told the press after the Ministerial “On missile defense, our allies strongly expressed their support for the new American approach, and NATO officially noted the important role missile defense plays in the protection of our population, territory, and forces.

On this issue, at least, the Alliance is once again, united.

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