Next Steps in NATO Missile Defense


2015-08-01 By Richard Weitz

At the 2010 Lisbon summit, NATO decided to make missile defense a priority mission and committed to protect European populations and territory from missile attacks as well as their deployed armed forces. The NATO decision did not highlight any particular country as a threat but cited general concerns about the proliferation of ballistic missiles around its periphery.

Current missile threats to Europe emanate from two geographic regions.

To the south, in North Africa and Missile Defense, NATO faces terrorism and civil wars as well as immediate and emerging missile threats from Syria and Iran.

To the east, Russia has become newly threatening, with persistent threats of nuclear targeting against NATO allies, particularly those backing missile defense systems and the modernization of Russia’s missile capability with threatening actions in neighboring states, increased Russian long-range air activity, and the deployment of Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.

The United States and NATO have defined their missile defense programs as directed against exclusively non-Russian threats. In particular, the 2010 U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) states that U.S. missile defenses are focused on defending against limited missile threats from countries like North Korea and Iran to the U.S. homeland as well as regional missile threats to U.S. allies and partners and deployed U.S. forces throughout the world. The goals are to deter and defend against threats and assure U.S. allies about their security. The Obama administration, in the BMDR and subsequently, has insisted that U.S. missile defense efforts are not directed against Russia or China.

Indeed, until recently, the United States tried to cooperate with Russia on missile defense within the NATO framework as well as bilaterally. These efforts proved unsuccessful since Moscow insisted on limiting the capabilities and deployments of NATO missile defenses.

Although Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has resulted in the suspension of formal NATO-Russian dialogue and joint projects on European missile defense, and NATO has been strengthening its conventional capabilities for defending its members against Russian threats, NATO leaders continue to state that their missile defenses are not directed against Russia.

U.S. contributions to NATO’s collective missile defense are proceeding in line with the EPAA. The United States has completed Phase 1, with the stationing of a U.S. missile defense radar in Turkey under NATO’s operational control and the sustained deployment of a rotating fleet of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD)-capable ships in the Mediterranean.

The United States will complete EPAA Phase 2 later this year, with the deployment of an Aegis Ashore site in Romania that will use the same Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptor as the Aegis ships.

Ceremony held last year in Romania.

The Pentagon hopes to complete Phase 3 in 2018, with the construction of an Aegis Ashore site in Poland equipped with the new U.S. SM-3 Block IIA interceptor being co-developed with Japan. The completion of Phase 3 will extend ballistic missile defense to cover all NATO European territory.

EPAA serves as the backbone of NATO’s missile collective defense architecture. The United States has been constantly changing its BMD plans regarding Europe. At times, these shifts have weakened European trust in U.S. security guarantees regarding missile defense.

At present, missile defense in no longer a divisive issue in the alliance. Ballistic missile defense in NATO Europe is seen as a shared commitment of all 28 members. Several European members of NATO have also pursued missile defense capabilities, including as contributions to NATO collective missile defense.

At the 2012 Chicago summit, NATO declared that its collective missile defense had achieved “Interim Capability;” current plans are to raise this status to “Initial Operational Capability” at the 2016 Warsaw summit, following the deployment of the Aegis Ashore system in Romania and improvements in NATO’s collective BMD command and control capabilities.

In line with U.S. and NATO doctrine, none of these programs aim to counter Russia’s large and sophisticated arsenal of ballistic or cruise missiles. NATO has no plans to change this policy, though NATO may deploy missile defenses along with other forces required for crisis management and reassurance near Russia.

The prevailing view in NATO is a desire to avoid further exacerbating Russia-NATO tensions and reduce the prospects of securing Moscow’s cooperation on other security priorities such as Iran and terrorism. It would be difficult technically and financially to develop missile defenses capable of defending against Russia’s ballistic missiles and there is no political consensus to develop such a program. NATO analysts fear that even declaring such a goal would provide substance to Russian claims that the missile defense system is indeed directed against Russia.



Despite Russian actions in Ukraine, violation of the INF Treaty, and withdrawal from the CFE Treaty, many Europeans do not consider Russia a military threat to NATO. European governments also oppose spending more on missile defense.

Launching a new BMDR threat identification process will prove divisive given NATO’s previous reluctance to identify even Iran as an explicit threat, concerns about antagonizing Russia, and opposition to making significant new investments in missile defense capabilities.

However, some NATO experts are arguing the alliance should be allocating more time and resources to the missile threat posed by Russia in light of its new assertiveness, current missile deployments, and future modernization efforts. Their general position is that NATO must recognize and soberly assess current threats and adjust its deployments and capabilities accordingly.

In particular, some believe it is time for another BMDR due to the changing threat environment—new threats from Russia, possible reconciliation with Iran, evolving conflict in Syria, and political changes in the Middle East. They worry that failing to address the new threat from Russia encourages NATO members like Poland to pursue their own national capabilities, weakening NATO collective defense.

Some military analyst also want to deny Russia options to launch limited missile strikes or use threat of missile attacks to intimidate allies. In this regard, even limited capabilities would force Russia to contemplate larger missile strikes to overcome these defenses.

Noting that progress on missile defense within NATO has occurred most often when a small group of countries led by the United States has taken the lead, they believe that strong U.S. leadership could overcome current opposition within NATO to addressing Russian missile threats.