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Commentary | 20 July 2017

Europe’s Overlooked Missile Defence Dilemma

Image of Tytti Erästö

Tytti Erästö |Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, Washington D.C.

Arms Control Defence NATO Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

The negative repercussions of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea on European security are clear. However, there is a different specter haunting Europe that is unbeknown to most Europeans—namely the security dilemma around the U.S. / NATO anti-missile system.

While the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) maintain that their missile defence system is purely defensive and against ballistic missile attacks from the Middle East, Russia sees it as a threat to its own nuclear deterrent and responds accordingly—notably by threatening the countries hosting the system’s components.

The whole dynamics of the missile defence dispute remain poorly understood, for a number of reasons.

Europeans have from early on adopted the interpretation that deploying missile defences in the region has no implication for strategic stability. When Russia protested against the Bush administration plans to deploy strategic interceptors in Eastern Europe, the then-NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffersaid that the Allies were convinced that “there are no implications of the United States [missile defence] system for the strategic balance.”

This view was enforced after 2009, when the Bush project was scaled down by the Obama administration. Unlike the previous plan, which focused on defending the United States against Iran’s hypothetical intercontinental missiles, the new plan—the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)—was to protect Europe from Iran’s existing missile capabilities.

The key principle guiding EPAA was adaptability to the evolution of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs: as President Obama assured at the time, there would be no need for the anti-missile system if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs were eliminated.

If missile defences indeed were limited, Russia would have no reason to be worried. The problem is that there are no guarantees that this will be the case. Largely due to opposition by the U.S. Congress, the United States has repeatedly rebuffed Russian calls for legally binding limits to the anti-missile project. Russian concerns thus boil down to uncertainty about the future. While not threatening in itself, EPAA—particularly the land-based site in Romania and the one under construction in Poland as part of EPAA’s Phase III—provides a platform for potential quantitative and qualitative expansion of missile defences.

Russian suspicions are further enforced because the principle of adaptability is not being applied in practice. Despite the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the fact that Iran’s missiles cannot even reach Poland, the construction of the Polish missile defence site continues as scheduled. The site, which is to be completed in 2018, is meant to protect central and northern Europe against intermediate-range missiles. But Iran does not have, nor is it likely to develop, such missiles. And why would Iran attack Europe?

Reach of Iran’s Longest Range Missiles



While American officials seek to explain the policy with references to Iran’s continuing missile tests, the Alliance seems to have completely abandoned the association between missile defence and Iran. As stated in NATO’s official website in late 2015, NATO’s “missile defence is not about any one country, but about the threat posed by proliferation more generally. In fact, over 30 countries have obtained, or are trying to obtain, ballistic missile technology. The Iran framework agreement does not change those facts.”

But neither of these justifications is credible. For the past decade, Iran’s missile tests have focused on improving the accuracy of its medium-range missiles, not increasing their reach. Indeed, there is no indication that Tehran would be developing either intermediate-range or intercontinental missiles. As for the generic proliferation threat, a closer look at the list of 31 countries with ballistic missile capabilities reveals that there is not a single country that would justify the current missile defence site in Poland: most countries in the list are U.S. allies, including Israel and Saudi-Arabia—the only Middle Eastern states who have missiles that could reach Central Europe.

The American definition of the Iranian threat has always been at odds with the reality of European-Iranian relations. That is partly why Europeans have been so uneasy with explicit references to Iran as the main rationale for NATO’s missile defence system. This has been the case particularly after the Iran nuclear deal, as both Iran and European countries are looking for ways to re-establish and expand previous trade and investment cooperation.

Another reason for the European obliviousness to their missile defence dilemma is that it has become overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis. In effect, Russia’s response to the anti-missile system—notably the deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad in October 2016— has been interpreted as part of President Putin’s general pattern of aggression.

In this context, few recall that Russia has warned of such countermeasures since the Bush anti-missile plan was announced in 2007. For example, in 2011 President Medvedev explained that, if the missile dispute remained unresolved, “modern offensive weapon systems,” such as Iskander missiles, would be deployed on Russian borders to ensure the “ability to take out any part of the U.S. missile defence system in Europe.”

There is little discussion on European missile defence policy because the United States has covered most of the costs, but also because allies are disinclined to question NATO solidarity in the current political climate. According to a group of experts from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), “NATO’s insistence on pushing ahead with a missile defence system does not necessarily imply agreement over its purpose and goal. The lack of a debate can be explained by Washington’s sustained willingness to fund the programme almost entirely itself. For many, the political costs of changing course also appear higher than those of continuing the programme.”

However, continuing on autopilot is a bad idea. The expansion of the system is worsening tensions with Russia, while adding nothing to European security.

As far as some believe that the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in Romania and Poland could protect Europe from Russian missiles, they are mistaken. As Frank Rose, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance recently stated, “I do not believe there is a missile defence solution to the strategic challenge that Russia presents.”

Indeed, given that it has not been tested in realistic conditions, there is no guarantee that the SM-3 would even work against more limited missile threats. As for the Block II version of the SM-3 that is to be deployed in Poland, it has only gone though two interceptor tests—the second of which failed on 22 June.

It is in the interests of regional security that the United States reinstate adaptability to EPAA by suspending Phase III in Poland. But this is unlikely as long as such a move is portrayed as yet another step away from U.S. commitments to NATO. The Trump administration thus needs a push from Europeans. The European Allies should demand an end to the expansion of missile defenses for the sake of consistency with previous NATO policy and the reality that Iran is not a threat, but a potential partner to Europe.

The article and map are based on a report Between the Shield and the Sword: NATO’s Overlooked Missile Defense Dilemma, published by the Ploughshares Fund in June 2017.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and 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 the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.