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Commentary | 24 January 2019

The United Kingdom’s Likely Response to the New Missile Defence Review

Arms Control Defence Europe NATO United Kingdom United States Global Security

History, as the saying goes, does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. As the dust settles on the United States’ newly released missile defence review (MDR) the question of how allies such as the U.K might respond to it may well be provided by way of an analogy with the Cold War decisions to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe and begin work on the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). While there are meaningful differences between the Reagan era policies and the current U.S approach to missile defence, there is an overarching similarity in the strategy that underpins them.

The Pershing deployment and the SDI both confronted the U.S.S.R with the distinct prospect of having its second-strike capability eroded in order to bring it to the negotiating table with regards to a raft of issues such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) in Europe. While the new missile defence review highlights the theatre level rather than the strategic arsenals of peer competitor states, its emphasis on pre-emption left of launch and exploring the potential for space-based interceptors to perform intercepts at a missile’s boost phase could jeopardize the strategic arsenals of these states. This is particularly true of states such as China, which has unified control of its strategic and theatre level missiles under the umbrella of the Strategic Rocket Force – meaning that they likely share command and logistical structures with theatre level assets.

That being said, the new missile defence review is not an immediate overhaul of the U.S posture. It’s primary emphasis is still on exploring the anti-ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) potential of existing capabilities such as the ship based SM3 Block IIA interceptor. It does not announce the procurement of new capabilities. Rather, what is most notable is an expansion of the overarching vision guiding research and development. In principle, then, some aspects of the new posture can be dropped without too much cost should competitors make reciprocal concessions. When viewed within the context of the 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy’s commitment to negotiating on arms control from a position of strength but not being deterred from acting decisively by the fear of escalatory behaviour, what emerges is a strategy not dissimilar to the Reagan approach- escalating in order to subsequently negotiate on favourable terms.

This poses distinct problems for states such as the United Kingdom, however. The central issue is that there is likely to be a gulf between the NATO understanding of the role of missile defence and the policy implied by the U.S MDR. NATO aims squarely at defending against limited ballistic missile launches from rogue states and eschews any attempt to jeopardize the Russian nuclear arsenal. While NATO is committed to the theatre level defence of fielded forces, its ALTBMD (active layered theatre missile defence) programme consciously does not include left of launch capabilities.

Given the 2015 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review’s stated commitment towards building a ground based radar to enhance NATO coverage and to continue contributing to NATOs missile defence, it is clear that at this point the UK views the missile defence enterprise as one to be pursued within a NATO framework. Indeed, at this point the UK lacks interceptors capable of credible homeland defence and will rely entirely on NATO capabilities for this. Yet simultaneously, the UK’s investment in power projection capabilities such as the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier and its commitment to tasks such as freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea will place its forces squarely in the realm of the theatre level missile threats that the MDR targets in a context where the U.S, rather than NATO, is the partner of choice. This will also be true if the UK wishes to act as a “first responder” in advance of NATO in regions such as the Baltics through organizations such as the UK Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and the British-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF).

The UK’s response to the SDI might provide an insight into how this triage between Europe and the U.S might be managed. Faced with a similar balancing act in the 1980s the UK based its response on three prongs: lukewarm rhetorical support for the SDI, a commitment to cooperating with the U.S on researching related technologies, and simultaneously joining European partners in reaffirming a commitment to arms control, ignoring U.S. Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger’s offer of membership in an extended SDI network. Margaret Thatcher’s government reached a four points agreement with the Reagan administration which linked the UK’s public support for United States BMD to continued efforts at getting arms control negotiations back on track – with the rollback of SDI related developments being negotiable if arms control summits resumed. Effectively, Thatcher tried to split the difference – tepidly supporting the U.S while conditioning that support on the premise that the SDI would be instrumental to achieving the arms control breakthroughs that mattered to continental Europe.

Today, a similar hedging approach seems most compatible with the UK’s current approach to missile defence. Although the UK is committed to a NATO wide consensus on the need to prioritize a 360-degree ballistic missile defence against rogue state launches, it is also exploring modifying its Type-45 destroyer to play an expeditionary theatre missile defence role. Generating interoperability with American counterparts outside the context of a NATO response could allow these mobile assets to support a more assertive American theatre missile defence posture. In a similar vein, the newly procured F-35B fighters which the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers will field could well join American counterparts in the missile hunting role that the MDR has identified for the F-35.

Moreover, the UK Missile Defence Center (MDC) is committed to research in areas such as space-based sensors which the MDR intends to add to the existing layered U.S defence system as well as to exploring the potential of novel and disruptive technologies which may well be a part of an eventual U.S left of launch capability. It seems likely, then, that the UK will pursue a hedging posture like the approach it adopted during the Reagan era.

The UK’s support of the new framework outlined by the Trump administration will consist of coordination between the MDC and the U.S Missile Defence Agency on research related capabilities such as space based assets and non-kinetic “left of launch capabilities”  coupled with efforts to make expeditionary assets such as the Type-45 and the F-35 interoperable with a U.S global theatre missile defence system.

That being said, however, it is likely that the bulk of the UK’s substantive dedicated investments in the area of missile defence will remain limited to its contributions to NATO and to a potential ground-based radar to increase the coverage of the 360 degree ballistic missile defence system identified by the alliance as a necessity at its 2014 Munich Security Conference. Moreover, the UK will probably continue its support of the eventual resumption of arms control negotiations on treaties like the INF treaty. It will thus likely make the case that the U.S’ more muscular missile defence posture represents a bargaining chip towards achieving that end – splitting the difference between Europe and the U.S.

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.