Is NATO prepared for Anti-Ballistic-Missile defence ?

Posted in NATO | 16-Apr-07 | Author: Franco Apicella

Franco Apicella is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.

In his telephone conversation with President Putin on March 28, President Bush attempted to dispel doubts about the anti-missile defense system that the US intends to deploy in Europe. The director of the MDA (Missile Defense Agency) General Henry Obering also stressed recently the inoffensive nature of the system in comparison with the Russian missile arsenal, and stated that he was prepared to discuss the matter. A few days after the telephone conversation between the two presidents there were even rumors –immediately denied – of possible Russian involvement in the American program.

The technical problem, which is the issue of most concern to the US, is overshadowed by at least three sets of political issues: the reactions of Russia, the different attitudes of European countries and relations with Nato. It is hardly surprising that Russia should feel surrounded, first by Nato enlargement, then by western pressure on Georgia and the Ukraine and now by this anti-missile system deployed almost on her doorstep. Russia might, however, accept Obering’s technical reasoning because her arsenal, albeit not so vast as in the past, is still capable at least of saturating the new US defenses in Europe.

Things could be even better on the political front: a divided Europe, with strong currents of anti-US hostility, plays into Russia’s hands; so it will not be Moscow’s reactions – which are mostly a front – that influence US decisions, but those of the European countries. Though hindered by internal opposition, authorisation should be forthcoming from Poland to deploy the interceptors and from the Czech Republic to install the radar equipment required for the anti-missile system.

The other countries are following their familiar scripts: Germany, through Chancellor Angela Merkel, is leaving it to Nato to decide, Italy seems anxious to be included in the cover provided by the system, which France on the other hand would see as an unwelcome debt to the US. It should not be forgotten that a few weeks ago, when it looked as if the cover would not extend to South-Eastern Europe (Italy included), Nato Secretary-General Scheffer, in an interview in the Financial Times, voiced his concern about possible non- integration of the system within the Alliance.

To bring the issue back into Nato, as Merkel has suggested, would mean to broaden it, not only because of the different philosophies which now cohabit within the Alliance but also because of the problem of the dual key (launch to be authorised simultaneously by US and Nato) which would inevitably arise if Nato’s anti-missile defense system were to be integrated with that of the US. Without the ever-present threat conditions which characterised the Cold War period and ensured the effectiveness of the dual key system for nuclear warheads, it is difficult to imagine a similar agreement on the management of a missile threat that is perceived very differently in the US and in Europe, and indeed even among the European countries.

The technical aspect is equally important. What Nato is seeking to achieve is a theater defense system aimed at protecting Alliance contingents deployed in crisis areas. For the moment it is wishful thinking to imagine an anti-missile defense system protecting the territory of the various countries with a form of cover that would have to be superimposed on that of the existing integrated air defense.

At a recent House of Representatives hearing US Deputy Defense Secretary Brian Green described as a “difficult challenge” the proposal to make Nato the forum in which to decide on the deployment of the US system. The problem, Green stated explicitly, was the difficulty of obtaining the necessary consensus. But as well as the problem of political consensus there is also the distrust with which the US views the European defense industry. Taylor Dinerman wrote in The Space Review that “US technology is too valuable and too sophisticated to be shared with those who have never invested any financial or political capital in it”.

This technology is not only sophisticated; most importantly, it is still being developed, and nothing is yet certain. For example, a proposal was tabled in the House of Representatives to choose either the mobile ground-based Thaad (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system or the Aegis naval system, rather than interceptors and static radar systems to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. In reply, General Obering argued that static systems are best in terms of cost-effectiveness, adding however that investment would continue in mobile systems, which are used to optimum effect when integrated with static sensors to provide multi-level defense.

It is expected that ten interceptors will be deployed in Poland. To give an idea of the threat, General Obering cited approximately 100 ballistic missile launches in 2006 by third party countries around the world. This figure was expected to double in 2007, indicating “the determination of many countries to acquire these capabilities”. The US missile defense pole in Europe would be the third – after those in Alaska and California – in the Gmd (Ground based midcourse defense). In the US some are asking themselves why on earth the Europeans should receive as a gift a cover which they neither want nor deserve, since there are other technologies available. The answer could come from the defense industry, and it is easy to imagine what it would be.

Franco Apicella is a Lieutenant General (ret) of the Italian Army. His last job in duty was Chief of Staff of the Italian Land Forces Command. As a senior defense editor he provides regular contribution to the webzine Pagine di Difesa.