NATO Missile Defense System: Next Steps?


2016-05-15 By Richard Weitz

While celebrating the formal inauguration last week of its new Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense (BMD) site in Romania, NATO’s July heads-of-state summit in Warsaw will need to decide how to develop NATO’s BMD architecture after the fulfillment of the existing plans to establish one more Aegis Ashore site in Poland.

In September 2009, the new Obama administration announced major changes in plans for establishing missile defenses in Europe.

The administration cancelled the Bush administration’s planned deployment of a third U.S. national missile defense site in Europe—a BMD radar in the Czech Republic and ten Grand-Based Missile Interceptors in Poland—and instead decided to focus on first deploying shorter-range interceptors closer to Iran and then deploying more advanced capabilities in later phases to match the expected growth in Iranian missile capabilities.

The administration also more explicitly described this alternative BDM program for Europe, the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), as a U.S. contribution to the defense of NATO’s European members.

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 NATO”s deployed armed forces, which had been the previous focus of NATO’s collective BMD efforts.

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, especially to the southeast, where the alliance faced emerging missile threats from Iran and potentially other states

The first EPAA phase 1, which began in 2011, resulted in the deployment in Turkey of a forward-based AN/TPY-2 BMD radar, which shifted to NATO’s operational control in 2012; the establishment of a BMD command and control node in Germany; and the sustained deployment of a rotating fleet of Aegis BMD-capable ships, armed with the U.S. Navy’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptor, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The just completed EPAA Phase 2 consisted of deployment of four Aegis BMD-capable ships to Naval Station Rota in Spain and the construction of an Aegis Ashore BMD site in Romania.

Aegis Ashore employs a system nearly identical to the sea-based version, with the same vertical launch system, fire command and control system in an enclosed “deckhouse,” the SPY-1 radar, and SM-3 interceptors designed to intercept ballistic missiles in flight.

The US and NATO have just started EPAA Phase 3 with the beginning of the construction of another Aegis Ashore in Poland equipped with the new U.S. SM-3 Block IIB interceptor being co-developed with Japan. Upon its completion by the end of 2018, the BMD coverage will extend to all NATO European territory.

The Obama administration cancelled a planned EPAA Phase IV deployment due to problems developing the proposed interceptor—and never offered an alternative post-2018 vision for NATO BMD.

NATO allies have been working to develop and deploy their own national contributions to missile defense (the Netherlands, for example, is upgrading the radar on several air-defense frigates to an extended long-range missile defense early-warning system). But they have also not officially proposed how to develop the alliance’s collective missile defenses after 2018.

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 early July 2016 Warsaw summit, following the deployment of the Aegis Ashore system in Romania and further improvements in NATO’s collective BMD command and control capabilities. At present, missile defense in no longer a divisive issue in the alliance and allies see missile defense as a shared commitment of all NATO members.

At present, there are no public plans to develop the system further, beyond EPAA Phase 3.

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. Yet, NATO must recognize and soberly evaluate current threats and upgrade its deployments and capabilities accordingly.

The threat environment has notably changed since the U.S. 209 and 2010 NATO BMD decisions. The Iran nuclear deal and Tehran’s decision to focus its missile program on developing short- and intermediate-range missiles have decreased the near-term threat potential nuclear missile threat to Europe from Iran.

Meanwhile, Russia has become more threatening, with the modernization of Russia’s missile capability, threats of Russian nuclear strikes against NATO members, and menacing aviation and ground exercises and deployments against NATO.

Until now, 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 states of proliferation concern 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.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, center; Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos of Romania, right; and Foreign Minister Lazar Comanescu at May 12, 2016 opening of an antimissile system.Credit Robert Ghement/European Pressphoto Agency
NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, center; Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos of Romania, right; and Foreign Minister Lazar Comanescu at May 12, 2016 opening of an antimissile system.Credit Robert Ghement/European Pressphoto Agency

Despite growing tensions with Moscow, 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 and other NATO countries tried to cooperate with Russia on missile defense within the NATO framework as well as bilaterally. These efforts proved unsuccessful since Moscow insisted on receiving binding legal guarantees from Western leaders 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.

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.

But developing defenses against Russia’s strategic deterrent, as opposed to the current declared focus on Iran, is technically and financially impossible for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, there is no political consensus in Europe to launch a program due to divisions within NATO on how robustly to challenge Moscow and on how much to spend on defense.

The next U.S. administration will need to take the lead in deciding where to direct the NATO BMD program after 2018.

There would be value in having the capacity to defend against more limited Russian air, ballistic, and especially cruise missile strikes in Europe, such as those Russia has demonstrated in its Syrian campaign.

Having even limited capabilities against Russian strikes would force Moscow to contemplate larger missile strikes to overcome these defenses.

As noted on this site (, the Russian military is developing concepts for waging limited missile and aviation wars in Europe, and the alliance should better constrain any Russian attempt to apply such options in practice.

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