The following is Part I of an article I wrote for the May 2013 issue of Atlantic Voices, a monthly magazine published by the Atlantic Treaty Association.
Containing regional conflicts and blunting their expansion into other areas has always been a difficult challenge for independent states and international organizations. Today, there are several existing and potential regional conflicts that threaten to draw in states that are currently not at war. The political phenomenon of the Arab Spring is a remarkable example of how quickly and broadly isolated conflicts can spread to neighboring countries. In addition, tense situations such as the Iranian nuclear crisis and North Korean saber-rattling continue elsewhere, threatening NATO member states and strategic partners should these situations escalate into actual military engagements.
The ability for conflicts to spread beyond their initial borders is partly facilitated by the modern tools of mass media. News, information and political discourse can span the globe in just moments on the Internet as social media has given voice to individuals previously rendered mute by their oppressive regimes. However, just as modern advances have given new recourse for the oppressed, modern weaponry also has allowed states and armed militant groups to spread violence further than they were previously capable. Both states and non-state actors (NSA) have been able to threaten and attack their targets beyond their zones of operation without putting boots on the ground by utilizing missiles and rockets. These technologies range from the extremely sophisticated to the very crude, where some can only be implemented by states while others can be harnessed by almost anyone, thus creating the need for states to properly prepare and defend themselves against these threats that emanate from beyond their borders.
The NATO Missile Defense exhibit at the Chicago Summit in 2012 (Source: AP).
NATO is uniquely positioned to create spheres of stability and protection against missile threats by sharing anti-missile defense systems amongst its members and creating a credible deterrent to states and NSAs that would consider using such weapons against them. NATO should focus on a policy that enables a robust missile defense program for its members and strategic partners, as several threats loom on the horizon for the Alliance.
The most recent example of NATO members bolstering each other’s missile defense is the deployment of PAC-3 (Patriot) batteries to Turkey in January 2013. This was done in response to a Turkish request of assistance from NATO after Syrian Scuds landed close to the Turkish border. The United States, the Netherlands, and Germany deployed batteries and hundreds of troops to operate them in two areas bordering Syria under NATO command.[i]
Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the most vocal supporter of the Syrian rebellion to overthrow President Assad. In addition to offering public support for the rebels, Turkey has allowed them to operate in its territory. However, the fear from Turkey and its allies is that the Syrian civil war will spill over into its territory. In addition to the stray mortar shells and bullets that may land in Turkish territory, there is a credible fear that President Assad will try to draw Turkey into the war by launching missiles directly against its Western neighbor.
German soldiers walk past a PAC-3 launcher in December 2012 (Photo source: Reuters).
The Syrian armed forces possess an array of ballistic missiles, including Scud B and Scud C variants with ranges between 300 and 500 kilometers, respectively.[ii] There is also the constant fear that these missiles could carry a chemical warhead. These missiles threaten to make the localized Syrian conflict into a broader regional conflagration by drawing in Turkey and its allies into a confrontation with Syria and its allies, which include Iran and Russia.
Therefore, it was in NATO’s interest to deploy the PAC-3 system to Turkey. This system serves two very important roles. Most obviously, it is meant to intercept missiles that Syria may fire at Turkey. Limiting civilian deaths is one important way to ensure that certain violent situations do not become larger conflicts. Not only would these missiles, in theory, save lives, but they would also save Turkey from the internal pressure of responding in full force against Syria.
But the other role that the PAC-3 plays, which they have performed remarkably well since their deployment, is simply to deter Syria from launching missiles against Turkey. It could be argued that President Assad would never intend to launch missiles against Turkey whether the PAC-3s were deployed or not, but it is clear that they have acted as a successful deterrent.
The rapid deployment of this missile defense system in Turkey is a prime example of how NATO allies can aid each other in bolstering the security of member states while also containing regional political and military confrontations. Had Syria successfully launched Scuds against Turkey, the Syrian civil war could easily be overshadowed by a greater Middle East war that would be significantly more costly and bloody.
In addition to containing localized threats, joint planning of a NATO ballistic missile defense (BMD) system helps foster regional cooperation and creates a unified front against military and political foes challenging NATO’s security. In addition to Turkey’s request for NATO assistance, another strong example of BMD cooperation among NATO members is the longer-term European ballistic missile shield. This plan, which took its first steps in 2002, was both the cause of regional political clashes and an example of how the collaborative efforts of NATO members could create strong deterrent measures against NATO’s foes.
Initially, NATO BMD plans were aimed against threats that NATO troops may face when deployed in the field, known as Theater Missile Defense. The Theater Missile Defense plan, which was focused against the tactical missiles threatening NATO forces, eventually expanded in 2002 to include a broader defense against ballistic missiles that may threaten European population centers and territory, or Territorial Missile Defense.[iii]
The process of creating a robust European BMD plan started at NATO’s 2002 Prague Summit where the participants agreed to examine the possibility of a BMD system to protect Allied forces, territory and populations. The two following summits – Riga in 2006, where participants approved the results of the Prague Summit; and Bucharest 2008, where NATO members decided to allow American BMD systems in Europe – pushed these plans closer to fruition. However, Russia reacted angrily when the US signed a missile defense agreement with Poland in the summer of 2008. While the US claimed the planned missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic was being created only to counter threats posed by Iran, the Russian envoy to NATO responded that the timing of the agreement, which was at the end of the Russian-Georgian War, indicated that “the missile defence system will be deployed not against Iran but against the strategic potential of Russia.”[iv]
The US had strongly considered plans to place long-range missile interceptors in Poland for the past decade. However, there was hardly a unified front within NATO over the proposal. Polish officials faced tremendous internal opposition from their constituents, while other NATO leaders also argued against the plan, such as then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When US President Barack Obama terminated the plan in September 2009, the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom all reacted positively to the announcement, which was seen as a move to assist in the warming of US-Russian and European-Russian relations.
Instead of a BMD shield based in Poland, the September 2009 announcement by President Obama included the outline of the new European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The EPAA is a plan that gradually builds Europe’s missile shield. Seeking to ease the concerns of its Polish and Czech allies, the US dispatched Vice President Joseph Biden, along with several military commanders, to Poland in October 2009, where he reaffirmed the US’s commitment to Poland’s security. Vice President Biden outlined the plan, which called for the smaller Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) to be placed on US warships in the region and on Polish soil in 2018, pending Polish parliamentary approval.[v] This plan, according to US officials, was a more appropriate response to the Iranian missile threat and would also be more tolerable in Moscow.
The USS Hopper launches a Standard Missile-3.
EPAA is designed to counter short and intermediate-range Iranian ballistic missiles. The EPAA allows for flexibility by implementing mobile radars and interceptors mounted on Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers.[vi]
In a further effort to work with Russia, NATO sought to create a functioning mutual BMD system at the 2010 Lisbon Summit. During the summit, the NATO-Russia Council agreed to discuss pursuing BMD cooperation and agreed on a joint ballistic missile threat assessment. This new cooperation culminated in April 2012 when NATO and Russia successfully conducted a computer-assisted missile defense exercise.[vii]
By 2011, more NATO members had signed on to elements of EPAA. In the autumn of 2011, Turkey agreed to host a BMD-supporting radar in Kureak, Turkey while Romania agreed with the US to house the SM-3s in 2015. Moreover, The Netherlands contributed to the EPAA by announcing plans to upgrade four frigates with long-range missile defense early-warning radars as its national contribution to NATO’s BMD. At the same time of the Dutch announcement, the US and Spain entered into an agreement to station four Aegis-equipped ships in Rota, Spain.
A major breakthrough for NATO’s BMD plan was announced at the Chicago Summit in 2012. NATO allies stated in article 60 in their official Declaration “We are pleased today to declare that the Alliance has achieved an Interim NATO BMD Capability. It will provide with immediate effect an operationally significant first step, consistent with our Lisbon decision, offering the maximum coverage within available means, to defend our populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe against a ballistic missile attack.”[viii] This announcement confirmed that the agreement reached at Lisbon in 2010 to create a functioning BMD system for Europe had reached its interim capability. This meant that basic command and control capabilities had been installed at NATO Allied Air Command Headquarters in Ramstein, Germany, while US ships in the Mediterranean equipped with the Aegis-system had been put under NATO command.
There are several benefits from NATO’s current position in terms of ballistic missile defense. One of the key points of tension with Russia for the past several years was the placement of an intercontinental ballistic missile interceptor, known as the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), in Poland. The EKV represented a system that was designed to defend against long-range missile threats, while Russia felt that its single purpose was to reduce Russia’s nuclear deterrence. However, the refocused EPAA plans to utilize the SM-3, which is not an intercontinental missile interceptor, but rather is designed to intercept short- to intermediate-range missiles. This switch of interceptor missiles both symbolically and practically refocused NATO’s BMD capabilities away from Russia and towards Iran. This reopened a crucial political dialogue between the US and NATO with Russia. Re-engaging Russia politically is vital at a time when many Western and Middle Eastern states are increasingly concerned about Iranian missile and nuclear progress. In 2009 Russia signed a deal with Iran to supply it with the S-300 air defense missile system, believed to be one of the most sophisticated air defense systems in the world. However, by 2010 the deal had been postponed by Russia. This postponement is in great part due to diplomatic efforts against Iran as well as direct negotiations with Russia. In fact, the timing of the Russian cancellation falls near the announced EPAA, which replaced the EKV with the SM-3. It is fascinating to think that NATO BMD plans may have actually had a positive impact on NATO-Russian relations and helped NATO politically.
The integration of the missile defense systems of several nations is both a technological and political feat. The integration of BMD systems includes NATO members and other partners throughout the globe that are linked into US-missile defense systems. Most notably, Israel and Japan have been the biggest recipients of US aid and cooperation. The collaboration and goals outlined within EPAA signal a unified military and political front to the globe that a multi-national continental missile defense system is not only theoretical, but achievable. When dealing with belligerent neighbors, whether they be Iran or North Korea, this form of alliance helps contain possible conflict. We have already witnessed the localized success of regional cooperation with the deployment of PAC-3 missiles in Turkey, and may owe credit for future peace to a continent-wide missile defense system in Europe, along with NATO cooperation with other partners such as Russia, Israel and Japan. It is important to take a closer look at these future threats and analyze what a comprehensive ballistic missile defense program can achieve.