NATO's Failure to Launch

NATO's Failure to Launch

Technical difficulties, political squabbling and Russian objections are hindering the alliance's missile-defense project.


The ballistic-missile threat to NATO allies is real and seems to be growing. At the NATO Summit in Chicago this weekend, alliance member states are expected to advance ballistic-missile defense (BMD) goals established by the 2010 Lisbon Summit, including an agreement to deploy a missile-defense system providing protection of NATO’s European territory. Despite this initial strategy, many hurdles remain for implementation.

According to NATO estimates, over thirty countries have operational ballistic missiles, and the list is growing. While there may not be an immediate threat or intent to attack, NATO worries over proliferation, and a mandate to protect populations remains the alliance’s responsibility. In NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s first-ever annual report, he stated that such a system “embodies transatlantic solidarity.”


Allies and Interests

Progress is often slow when it comes to implementing NATO initiatives, particularly those as large and complex as missile defense. Last December, NATO awarded defense firm ThalesRaytheonSystems a contract to deliver an “interim capability element” to the Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The €3 million contract will comprise the 24/7 command-and-control capability, to be completed by 2015, with other phases expected in 2018 and 2020. Each phase involves a combination of contributions by NATO allies including Turkey, Poland, Romania, Spain, the Netherlands and France.

These allies and others plan to host significant aspects of the command-and-control system. Turkey’s Kurecik Air Base in Malatya already houses a radar station with a command center located in Diyarbakir, while Poland and Romania will host interceptor missiles. Spain will host Aegis Standard Missile (SM-3) missiles aboard U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers at its base in Rota, Spain, which are designed to counter medium- and long-range threats; ground-based PAC-3 Patriots throughout Europe will counter short-range threats.

Yet there is already angst in the international community over the placement of these command-and-control and missile-defense systems. One is the proximity of anticipated Romania- and Poland-based missiles to Russia. Another flap exists with the possibility of intelligence sharing between Turkey’s radar system and Israel, which has refused to apologize for the deaths of eight Turkish citizens in the May 2010 flotilla incident.

Russia has the biggest problem with the placement of the shield’s radars and interceptors. The primary purpose of the missile shield is to deter and defeat threats from Iran, including the 800-mile Shahab 3 missile. Russia is concerned that the later phases of NATO missile defense could deter its own strategic-deterrent capabilities—despite cooperative language and intent to the contrary in NATO’s annual report. But European radars and antimissile systems do cover Russian territory up to the Ural Mountains, making it technically possible to intercept Russian missiles.

One of the ways NATO can strengthen the system while assuaging Russian fears is by backing up the invitation it made to Russia to cooperate on BMD. NATO’s annual report stated that “it makes sense for NATO and Russia to cooperate in defending against [ballistic missiles]. NATO’s vision is of two separate systems with the same goal, which could be made visible in practice by establishing two joint missile defence centres, one for sharing data and the other to support planning.” Russia seems to want more than this: Russian president Dmitri Medvedev recently threatened to deploy Iskander-theater ballistic missiles to counter Polish missiles.

Some analysts claim that Russia’s rebuffed request of NATO integration confirms suspicions that the NATO system may be used to counter Russia’s, but there is no evidence to back up such assertions. The only advantage Russia may have over NATO is a recent linking of any BMD agreement by Russia’s former NATO envoy Dmitri Rogozin to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). This network is a vital strategic Eurasian trading corridor whose importance will only increase as NATO begins withdrawing from Afghanistan over the next two years. It would be tragic if Russia were to shut the NDN down after such great cooperation was made to broker it. Because of all these unresolved issues, Russia has backed out of participating in the NATO Summit. But more even more hurdles remain.

Not Ready for Prime Time?

Overcoming significant technical complexities of fielding and integrating the system will remain a challenge for several years. For example, the Aegis SM-3 interceptor missiles are touted by NATO as a proven technology, but eight of ten intercept tests over the last decade failed to destroy incoming warheads, casting doubt on the missiles’ capability. The last successful intercept test in three and a half years occurred on May 9. Although much cash has been tendered as the uncertain solution to a complex problem, prospects remain dim. And questions of technical complexity don’t begin to address actual costs.

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.