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Commentary | 23 January 2019

Europe and Trump’s Missile Defense Policy

Last week, the Trump administration released its long-awaited Missile Defense Review (MDR).[1] It significantly expands the role and scope of US missile defences, with a distant potential to undermine Russian and Chinese strategic retaliatory capabilities. Moscow and Beijing are likely to respond with further weapon developments. The review might thus also reduce incentives and prospects for arms control and disarmament. Since U.S. ballistic missile defence (BMD) elements deployed in Europe are key assets in NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence, changes introduced by the review will also affect America’s European allies with consequences for relations between Brussels and Moscow.

What’s in it

The 2010 U.S. missile defence[2] strategy was aimed at defeating few ballistic missiles launched towards U.S. territory (explicitly from Iran and North Korea), defending U.S. forces deployed abroad and supporting allied security. In 2017, when passing the National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. Congress changed the purpose of U.S. BMD from defending against “limited” threats to “an effective, robust layered” system capable of defending “against the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threat.”[3] Last week, President Donald Trump described the future U.S. missile defence system as being even more comprehensive and able to “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”[4]

The newly published review does not reflect this pledge however. It expands the coverage of missile defence beyond ballistic missiles to include hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles. Although the review does not directly refer to countering Russian or Chinese strategic forces, the announced advancements allude to developing a future global system. This would affect strategic stability. Among other measures, the MDR supports the development of space-based sensors, foresees a quantitative increase in missile defence capable ships and U.S.-deployed interceptors, mandates research on space-based interceptors capable of boost-phase defence, requests a study on integrating the F-35 fighter for regional and homeland missile defence operations and one for arming unmanned aerial vehicles with lasers.

What’s in it for NATO

In 2010, NATO decided to establish a BMD capability as part of its Integrated Air and Missile Defence to “provide full coverage and protection”[5] for all of NATO Europe. The decision was accompanied by an understanding[6] that the United States provides an upper-layer defence against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, while European allies supply lower-layer defence capabilities against short-range missiles and shoulder their fair share of the command and control backbone.

Since NATO BMD development is predominantly driven by U.S. capabilities, Washington sets the tone and the direction for the Alliance. As such, some of the proposed changes in the 2019 MDR will most likely affect NATO’s missile defence policy.

Looming Divisions?

NATO previously declared that its BMD system is “purely defensive and is being established in the light of threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.”[7] Europeans have invested in BMD mainly out of alliance solidarity, as to date neither NATO nor individual member states have presented a sound public missile threat analysis. A key design feature of the NATO BMD was that it would not be directed against Russia or have the capability to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence.[8] NATO member states have reiterated this at every possible occasion, including their 2014 summit in Wales,[9] 2016 in Warsaw,[10] and 2018 in Brussels.[11]

However, Washington may now change the use of its European missile defence assets, especially given the announced plans to test the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)-class target in 2020. The United States develops this interceptor in cooperation with Japan, and intends to deploy it in Poland and Romania. The interceptor was initially aimed at protecting against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In this new review, it is characterised as having “the potential to provide an important ‘underlay’ to existing GBIs [ground-based interceptors] for added protection against ICBM threats to the homeland.” Regardless of the financial and technical feasibility of these plans, the very idea of having interceptors in Europe able to counter ICBMs will not only create another point of conflict with Russia, seemingly confirming the long-held Russian fear that the U.S./NATO missile defence policy is directed at its forces, but may also cause divisions within the alliance.

Impediment to arms control and disarmament

With the U.S. ABM Treaty withdrawal, the INF Treaty slowly dying and uncertain future of the New START Treaty, arms control is eroding. The new U.S. missile defence plans could strengthen the Russian and Chinese belief that the U.S. will at one point in the future be able to effectively undermine their strategic capabilities. If so, this could further diminish prospects for bilateral U.S- Russian and multilateral arms control and disarmament negotiations, as both China and Russia might want to compensate for the capability gap. At the same time, the MDR makes it clear that “the United States will not accept any limitations on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities.” As such, “rethinking arms control and disarmament policy”[12] – a call made by the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – might become increasingly challenging.

The MDR has yet to pass its biggest hurdle – Congressional scrutiny of its fiscal affordability following next month’s tabling of the budget proposal. Nevertheless, decision-makers in European capitals are well advised to prepare for tough discussions in the aftermath of the MDR’s publication – both with Washington and Moscow.


The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.




[3] Congress of the United States of America, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, sec. 1681, (access date March 13, 2017).