Missile Defense: Putin & European Security

Posted in Europe , Russia | 16-Jun-07 | Author: Stephan Frühling and Svenja Si

"The Russian offer of cooperation at the G-8 summit has allayed some Europeans' fears of stoking another Cold war."
"The Russian offer of cooperation at the G-8 summit has allayed some Europeans' fears of stoking another Cold war."

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said this week Moscow could site cruise missiles in Kaliningrad - between Poland and Lithuania - if the U.S. installed missile defences in central Europe. His remarks came just days after President Putin proposed cooperation in missile defense to U.S. President Bush - a Russian carrot-and-stick approach.

The plans of the United States to place missile defence interceptors in Poland and a supporting radar in the Czech Republic has led to significant criticism in Europe, not least since Russian politicians and generals have been most vocal in their opposition. After the recent meeting of NATO defence ministers, however, the chances of a result-oriented transatlantic dialogue developing seem to have improved: a study of the political and military implications of the U.S. plans for the Alliance is to be finished by February 2008, and NATO officials have hinted at a decision on an system to defend Alliance territory at the next summit in Bucharest in 2008. The Russian ‘offer’ of cooperation at the G-8 Summit has allayed some Europeans’ fears of stoking another Cold War. However, Europeans are wrong if they think that merely moving the discussion into NATO—or the Russian proposal—will solve the significant issues missile defence throws up for the Alliance. This article will discuss a number of technological, strategic and political questions that the European allies, sooner or later, will have to face.

The Threat from Ballistic Missiles

Although the Alliance has for many years identified the proliferation of ballistic missiles in general as a key threat, there is a strong reluctance among European allies in particular to name names. At this point in time, Iran cannot yet reach beyond the South-eastern fringes of the continent. But Iranian and North Korean policies make it clear that both are seeking the capability to be able to reach all members of the Western Alliance.

Due to the relatively advanced stage of its missile program, North Korea dominates the current U.S. threat perception. Now an established nuclear power, it tested a three-stage Taepo Dong I in 1998 and achieved successful multiple stage separation (before the third stage failed). The two-stage Taepo Dong II missile with increased payload capacity has an estimated range of up to 10,000 km, enabling it to reach all of Europe. A flight test in July 2006 of that missile failed, but since the country had already achieved successful multi-stage separation years before, the overall technological level of the program is difficult to assess.

Iran, currently a greater worry for Europeans than North Korea, is now widely believed to seek nuclear weapons as well. Its most advanced indigenous longer-range missile is the liquid-fuelled Shahab III, developed with close assistance from North Korea. A stretched version has achieved a range of 1,500 km, and Iran claims it could fly over 2,000 km; far enough to reach Athens. Ominously, the design of the new missile’s cone is consistent with delivery of nonconventional warheads. Tests of solid fuel engines for the Shahab III indicate work on multi-stage missiles with greater range, which would in all likelihood be variants of North Korean designs. The progress of Iran’s ballistic missile program is thus clouded by even larger uncertainty as it depends not only on Iranian advances, but also the extent to which it can profit from North Korean technology.

The United States assume that Iranian missiles will be able to reach North America by 2015, and have therefore now begun to prepare appropriate defences. The U.S. threat assessment suggests that significant uncertainty about the reliability and accuracy of missiles belonging to rogue states need not prevent operational deployment of defense systems. Meant to intimidate and deter, rather than achieve precise military objectives, rogue states’ missles do not have to be as reliable or as accurate as Cold War standards demanded. A credible capability of lashing out at civilian populations in Western countries is more important than the success of a specific attack. This cautionary basis of American plans has not been fully acknowledged by many European officials who, like German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, tend not to see the urgency in moving ahead with the defense system, given the absence of an Iranian ICBM capability at this point in time.


"In order to understand the overall system and its implications for NATO, it is necessary to distinguish its different capabilities and their purpose."

Missile Defence: The Wider Strategic Framework

For better or for worse, deterrence through nuclear punishment dominated the Western response to the threat of Soviet missiles during the Cold War. European NATO partners, in particular, were always very reluctant to support any U.S. moves to reduce the Alliance’s reliance on nuclear weapons, as they did not want to provide the battleground for a strategy placing more emphasis on actual defence, or deterrence through denial. Consequently, they were staunch supporters of the logic of mutual assured destruction and associated restrictions on strategic defences in the ABM treaty. Although not made explicit, indivisibility of Alliance security at that time meant that the United States would expose itself to the same threat of Soviet attack that loomed large before their transatlantic partners.

However, 9/11 has put an end to any residual U.S. willingness to entertain the idea of voluntary vulnerability. While it was always questionable, American confidence in the reliability of nuclear deterrence has eroded in the post-Cold War era. For deterrence to work, information is required about the adversary’s goals, values, and capabilities, as much as about his general outlook and frame of mind. The assumption that this will always be available to Western decision makers in the case of closed or religiously motivated regimes like North Korea or Iran is a very fragile one. The United States is thus determined to defend itself and its allies against both coercion and actual attack by rogue states’ missiles.

For the United States, conflict with Iran or North Korea is a distinct possibility that flows from its duties as the guardian of world stability and the ultimate defender of its Western allies—a direct continuation of its role during the Cold War. However, in the eyes of many Europeans, the threat from Iran and North Korea is different. While the Soviet Union directly threatened them and arguably harboured territorial aspirations in Europe, Europe sees the danger from Iran and North Korea as resulting from Western military engagements in those states’ neighbourhoods. This is something that the German populace, in particular, is very reluctant to entertain, support or pay the “price” for, as the controversy over the Iraq war has shown. Differences of opinion regarding the strategic importance of missile defence are inextricably linked to different perceptions of what Europe’s role in the world should be—a question on which Europeans themselves are far from agreement.

The U.S. Missile Defence Program and the European Base

After cancelling the ABM treaty in 2002, President Bush directed the Pentagon to field a system in 2004 to defend the United States from ballistic missiles. In order to understand the overall system and its implications for NATO, it is necessary to distinguish its different capabilities and purpose of these elements. Four types of interceptors are fielded to this day, or will be fielded soon:

First, Patriot PAC-3 missiles are relatively widely deployed by the United States and its allies and can defend against short-range ballistic missiles similar to the Scud. They are slow, have a relatively short range, and can only operate inside the atmosphere. Germany and Italy cooperate with the U.S. to increase the mobility of Patriot batteries in the MEADS program.

Second, U.S. THAAD missiles, still in the testing stage, are faster, have a longer range, and can intercept targets in the high atmosphere. They can thus be used for area defence against missiles like the medium-range Shahab III, and possibly even destroy missiles with an even longer range. However, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are too fast be intercepted with THAAD.

Third, SM-3 missiles are launched by naval destroyers or cruisers. They can only destroy missiles in space and are useless against shorter range missiles that do not leave the atmosphere. They can destroy medium and intermediate range missiles. However, due to their relatively weak acceleration and small kill vehicle they cannot, in their current form, destroy ICBMs. The United States and Japan cooperate in the development and production of the SM-3, and both already field them with their naval forces.

Only Ground Based Interceptors (GBI) are capable enough to intercept ICBMs in flight in space. In the U.S. global missile defence system, they and interceptors of all other types are integrated with command posts, early warning satellites, and radars. The latter include Cold War era early warning radars in Alaska, the United States, Greenland (Thule) and Great Britain (Fylingdales), as well as new missile defence radars in Japan (Shariki) and on a converted oil-rig in the Pacific. The radars on air defence ships of the US, Japanese and Dutch navies can also be linked into the system.

In addition to a number of Patriot batteries deployed around the globe, the operational part of the system consists of 16 GBI in Fort Greely, Alaska, and two in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Furthermore, SM-3 interceptor missiles are deployed on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers, some on the Sea of Japan. These interceptors are well placed to destroy North Korean missiles fired at Japan or the United States (Fort Greely lies on the great circle from Northeast Asia to the U.S. west coast), but less so for missiles from the Middle East. Here, the large distance from Fort Greely to the flight path of an Iranian ICBM to the United States means that a whole salvo of GBI would have to be fired soon after the launch in Iran, in the hope that at least one would destroy the incoming missile. There would be no second serve. In order to increase the probability of a successful intercept and to conserve the limited arsenal of interceptor missiles, it is thus necessary to build a third GBI base under the flight path of Iranian missiles to the United States—in Europe. This explains the U.S. determination to build such a facility in Poland, whose capability to defend Europe is, from the U.S. perspective, largely a welcome side effect.

At this point it is worth mentioning that the Russian ‘proposal’ to station interceptors in Turkey or even Iraq, and to use an old Soviet radar in Azerbaijan, is very unlikely to be technologically feasible. The radar leaves significant portions of Iran uncovered, and uses a wavelength that does not give the resolution that is necessary to control an intercept. Interceptors that could destroy ICBM from positions so close to Iran are not available, at least in the West. Russia still uses nuclear-tipped missiles for air and missile defence. However, the use of such systems is not a realistic option in political or strategic terms.

Defending Europe from Ballistic Missile Attack

"Russian objections that these plans would ‘upset the strategic balance’ are not credible."
"Russian objections that these plans would ‘upset the strategic balance’ are not credible."
Before delving into a discussion of the political implications, what should interest Europeans is the technical and operational capability of the proposed U.S. base to defend the continent from ballistic missiles, especially in conjunction with existing NATO efforts. The Alliance’s Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) Program is designed first and foremost to defend troops deployed on expeditionary operations. Its first stage, approved at the Riga Summit and to be operational in 2010, will network national sensors and interceptors with each other and Alliance headquarters, so that NATO units will be able to conduct a missile defence battle in the theatre. There will be no commonly owned sensors or interceptors, and in the absence of any firm European plans to procure systems like THAAD or SM-3, the European contribution is limited to Patriot/MEADS and French SAMP/T, all of which will only be able to destroy short range missiles.

Separately, the Alliance had commissioned a feasibility study for the defence of Alliance territory and populations in 2002, whose (classified) results were brought before the NATO Council in May 2006. Its proposals reportedly range from an extension of ALTMBD to the (fixed) headquarters infrastructure in Europe, with costs of a few hundred million euros, to a comprehensive defence system with several bases, interceptor systems and a robust sensor structure, at a cost of 20 billion euros. The difficulty here lies in the fact that large parts of the Alliance territory lie within the range of short- (Turkey) or medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles (Southeast Europe) from the Middle East. Unlike in the case of the continental United States, a whole range of different interceptors for different types of hostile missiles would thus be required for a comprehensive defence of Europe. As mentioned above, the results of this study will now be updated in light of the American plans.

In terms of technological capability, a U.S. GBI base in Eastern Europe could cover a part of this spectrum, as it could intercept ICBM aimed at central and North-western Europe. Given the limited capabilities of other interceptors, GBI would indeed be required to defend these areas. However, GBI can only intercept ICBM up to the point at which they fly past the base, as they cannot chase a hostile missile. That is why the U.S. system defending the American continent against missiles from Northeast Asia consists of two bases; one in California being able to spring into action should GBIs from Fort Greely fail to destroy an incoming missile. In order for the single base in Poland to have a high probability of success to defend Europe against an ICBM attack, it is thus likely that salvo fire would have to be used. This, however, would rapidly deplete the arsenal of only 10 planned interceptors. These, it must be remembered, have as their first role the defence of the United States (with the base at Fort Greely as a second line of defence). Only a second base in North-western Europe, in Britain for example, would provide a defence for Europe similar to that provided for the United States. However, GBI bases could still not defend South-eastern Europe against the threat of short and intermediate range missiles.

What Level of Protection and Sovereignty Do Europeans Want?

Nearly 60 years ago, NATO was founded on the assumption that the security of its members is indivisible. American and European allies have therefore pledged to defend each other, without reducing the right to assume “sovereign responsibilities in the field of defence”. North America was thus never part of the NATO area of responsibility, and its defence remained the sole responsibility of the United States and Canada. Both still cooperate on a bilateral basis in, for example, the air defence command NORAD. The GBI basis in Poland will be part of that sovereign U.S. system. However, since it will technologically be able to defend some of NATO’s European allies, it does of course throw up questions of alliance solidarity—paradoxically, however, primarily of solidarity between the Europeans themselves.

Europeans will have to decide what level of protection they want for their own populations. Independent of the answer, Europeans will generally have to take into account that not all of them will similarly benefit from the current U.S. program. It is somewhat ironic that those lucky enough to live in the Northwest of the continent, and who will thus enjoy a limited but real level of protection, courtesy of the American taxpayer, are the big and relatively well off countries of Northwest Europe, including Germany. Those in the southeast, however, threatened by shorter range missiles, will not benefit to a similar extent. North-western Europeans will thus have to decide whether they will contribute, financially and militarily, to extend their own “accidental” level of protection to their partners in the Southeast, by at a minimum extending the geographic scope of the ALTBMD program. The question is whether the U.S. base is integrated in a wider NATO framework or not. Recent statements by the Alliance Secretary-General that there could not be a two-class system with regards to the protection from missile threats demonstrate that this question is already coming to the fore in internal discussions.

The pledge of common defence did not just apply to Cold War times. It should be a matter of course that all Europeans contribute effectively to the defence of the Alliance territory—especially Europe—and take part in all essential defence decisions. Otherwise, decades of endeavours in strengthening the European pillar in the Alliance, as well as any solidarity within the EU, would be built on quicksand.

"Iranian policy makes it clear that they seek the ability to reach all members of the Western Alliance."
"Iranian policy makes it clear that they seek the ability to reach all members of the Western Alliance."
In practical terms, this means that allies who are at a disadvantage in financial, but especially also geopolitical terms, have a right to support from those members who are more favoured by geography. Already today, the gap in the Alliance defence against ballistic missiles primarily threatens Turkey and Greece. Sooner or later, the question of what alliance solidarity and ‘indivisibility of security’ might mean with regards to these countries will pose itself in practical terms. A U.S. base extending protection to North-western Europe will accentuate the differences between European allies, but these differences already exist today.

In addition, Europeans need to decide how much they want to be dependent on the goodwill of the U.S. President when it comes to the defence of their populations. As mentioned above, the 10 interceptors planned by the United States for its European base would be quickly depleted if they were to be used in salvoes defending Europe. The question is, therefore, how reliable any U.S. pledges to defend its allies would be, and how the Europeans would deal with any lingering doubts regarding the commitment of their main ally to common defence. Concerns of this kind were, after all, the reason France left the integrated command structure during the Cold War. With regards to the defence of South-eastern Europe, similar questions pose themselves as long as the United States is the sole operator of SM-3 and, in the future, THAAD in the Alliance. Only investment by European NATO members in commonly operated or national interceptor systems could reduce these problems.

A Missile Defence System for Alliance Security and Solidarity

What is required is a missile defence system that:

  • Can reliably defend the European continent;

  • Extends protection to all Alliance members;

  • Maintains the principle that all Alliance members have a say in issues relating to the common defence, but also contribute to the common effort;

  • And allows the United States a sovereign defence of North America.

A system architecture that could fulfil all of these criteria must include the following four elements:

  • A U.S. GBI base in Europe. The defence of North America has never been a NATO task, and it is the right of the United States to build a national system as it sees fit.

  • A second commonly funded and operated NATO GBI base in Europe, which operates in an integrated fashion with the U.S. base. Only a second base can provide layered defence for North-western Europe, and only a commonly operated and funded base is congruent with the purposes of the Alliance. The construction of two GBI bases may seem an expensive proposition, but given the reduction in required interceptor numbers for a given level of protection, this is not necessarily the case.

  • The extension of ALTBMD to, at a minimum, those NATO headquarters that would be used in the defence of the South-eastern European Alliance members. This would put NATO commanders in a position to integrate various national interceptor systems, should a defence of the continent become necessary.

  • National or, more likely given the cost involved, commonly operated and funded SM-3 and/or THAAD systems for the defence of South-eastern Europe. Being mobile, these interceptors and their batteries could in principle also be used to defend Alliance units on expeditionary operations. However, it is exactly during such operations that the defence of the continent would become an urgent necessity. In addition, deploying interceptors only during a crisis would likely be seen as escalatory, so that NATO should deploy them on a permanent basis (in a similar way that it still keeps theatre nuclear weapons in Europe).

The U.S. and NATO GBI bases would obviously require closely integrated battle management, but all other elements of the NATO system would also need access to national U.S. systems not assigned to the Alliance, especially early warning and communications systems. This is, however, not unusual for NATO, which has found the solution to similar problems in the ‘double hatting’ of U.S. commanders as part of both the national American, and the integrated NATO command chains (SACEUR/COMEUCOM is only the most prominent example). If the Commander of the NATO GBI base is a U.S. officer who, through SACEUR/COMEUCOM, commands the U.S. base as well, unity of command could be reconciled with the political prerogative of the NATO Council with regards to the commonly funded system elements.

Conclusion: And What about Russia?

"The Russian "proposal" to use an old Soviet radar in Azerbaijan is very unlikely to be technologically feasible."
"The Russian "proposal" to use an old Soviet radar in Azerbaijan is very unlikely to be technologically feasible."
The American plans to deploy GBI in Eastern Europe have, of course, led to demonstrative and loud protests from various officials and politicians in Russia, including President Putin himself. On the face of the matter, this is somewhat surprising since the U.S. plans were openly discussed in Washington for years, and had been the subject of consultations within both the NATO-Russia council and bilateral discussions. Russian objections that these plans would “upset the strategic balance” are not credible. No interceptor can chase a hostile missile, and GBI in Eastern Europe are far from any Russian ICBM field and thus in no position to intercept them on their way over the North Pole. Similarly, they would be useless against short range missiles fired from Western Russia or Kaliningrad at targets in Western Europe, as these can stay within the atmosphere (even Russian Topol ICBM can fly on depressed trajectories, limiting their exposure to possible intercept) and thus stay outside the engagement zone of the GBI. Besides, the GBI are not deployed in numbers anywhere near sufficient to matter in a NATO-Russian conflict, and vulnerable to Russian pre-emption. The fact that Russian generals and politicians obviously think in these terms is, however, telling.

Russian protests, and its ‘offer’ at the G-8 Summit, are thus only explicable in the wider context of relations between that country and the West, which are currently under stress for a variety of reasons. In particular, they fit a pattern of Russian behaviour in recent years that put pressure on small Eastern European countries while trying to divide major Western European countries from their transatlantic partner and constraining U.S. global influence. Agreeing to cooperate with Russia on its terms would re-establish Central Europe as Russia’s sphere of influence. This places severe doubt on any hopes that Russian objections could be addressed on their own merits, such as with mutual inspections or even technical cooperation (remembering that the U.S.-American RAMOS missile warning satellite program languished for years without strong support from either side, before being cancelled in 2005). Besides, a common NATO position for such talks is an essential prerequisite, yet still to be achieved.

Ballistic missile defence concerns the core of the NATO Alliance, the pledge of common defence among Alliance members. No amount of talks with Russia will make it possible for European countries to evade the questions that it raises regarding the fundamentals of Alliance solidarity.

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