Before leaving his position last summer, U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates warned about chronic underfunding of NATO, noting that only five of twenty-eight nations were meeting the agreed-upon target of 2 percent of GDP spending on national defense. Over the next decade, it is estimated that NATO countries will spend around $47 billion on the entire BMD system with the majority—around 85 percent—being underwritten by Washington. Given the ongoing global fiscal crisis, it is hard to imagine many NATO defense budgets capable of meeting that target. Additionally, the cost to fix the missile interceptors was recently estimated by Congressional auditors at $1.2 billion. How many more of the technical challenges remaining will be accompanied by similar price tags?
If these headaches were not enough, political squabbling amongst some NATO actors will make for some substantial discussions at next month’s summit. For example, Turkey opposes NATO’s assertion that BMD is primarily aimed at Iran. Meanwhile, France is upset at the apparent U.S. monopoly over long-range interceptors, while Italy seems to be losing industrial opportunities and as a result is feigning interest on BMD. Added to this is the hypersensitive issue of debris fallout should an incoming missile be destroyed over a protected nation, which is driving a robust rules-of-engagement discussion. Underlying the whole discussion are questions of who will control the shoot button and the issue of what territories should be protected. Since not all nations are contributing to the system, a natural have- and have-not debate within NATO is ongoing.
The clock is ticking, and the NATO summit cannot get here fast enough—at least as far as Israel is concerned. The large annual missile-defense exercise between Israel and the United States, Austere Challenge, normally held in April or May, was postponed by Israel until at least October or November. This decision took U.S. officials by surprise, leading to speculation that Israel is preparing to strike Iran and doesn’t want the U.S. to be perceived as culpable in such a strike. This also may explain why Israel did not want American troops on its soil the last few months.
The question of what constitutes missile-defense interim capability will loom large over the NATO Summit. Besides navigating the myriad challenges posed above, full operational capability certainly seems a bridge too far at present. The issue for NATO remains whether they can muster the political, diplomatic, economic and technical will to bring a BMD capability on line. Or will this just be another failure to launch?
Chad Manske is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and is a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The views expressed here are his own.