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The Future of NATO Missile Defense

Ballistic missile firing from US military vessel, courtesy of NATO

NATO’s missile defense program remains mired in controversy because of its disputed costs, feasibility and strategic necessity, and because of how it has negatively impacted the Alliance’s relations with Russia. To discuss these and related issues, ETH Zurich’s Center for Security Studies (CSS) recently hosted an Evening Talk on the future of NATO missile defense. The guest speakers were Roberto Zadra, who heads the Ballistic Missile Defense Section in NATO’s Defense Investment Division, and Bruno Rösli, who is the Deputy Director of Security Policy for the Swiss Federal Department of Defense,  Civil Protection and Sport.

Missile Defense: Where Are We Now?

Mr. Zadra began the discussion by reminding everyone that NATO leaders made a decision at the 2010 Lisbon Summit to develop a joint Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capability that would “provide full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces against the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.” While the United States would supply the lion’s share of the system’s technology and equipment, a number of European partners also agreed to make voluntary contributions to the program. At the 2012 Chicago Summit, NATO subsequently declared that the system had achieved ‘interim operational capability’ and would thereby be able to provide a first-step level of defense against short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats.

Unlike the Lisbon and Chicago meetings, the attendees of the 2014 Wales Summit did not announce that another milestone in missile defense had been reached. NATO leaders underlined the importance of missile defense as a core element of the Alliance’s strategy and doctrine, but the rhetoric seemed to outstrip operational realities. Mr. Zadra argued, however, that the system has in fact become much more robust over the past two years and is on track to reach ‘full operational capability’ within the next three to four years. Two Aegis-guided US missile destroyers, for example, are currently on rotation in the Mediterranean, with two more US ships scheduled to home port in Rota, Spain, later this year. The first land-based version of the Aegis system will also become operational in Romania this year, while a second base in Poland is expected to be completed by 2018. At that point, NATO’s BMD capabilities would be fully operational.

NATO-Russia Dialogue on Missile Defense

In addition to arguing that Brussels’ missile defense program remains on track, Mr. Zadra commented on the current NATO-Russia impasse over this issue. The two sides did explore the possibility of collaborating on missile defense after the Lisbon Summit, but they weren’t able to agree on the form and extent of their cooperation. While Moscow wanted to participate fully in a joint European missile defense network, NATO preferred to develop two entirely separate systems that would then coordinate and exchange information with each other. Given the nature of this impasse, both sides are essentially back where they started from. NATO continues to insist that it isn’t establishing an ‘anti-Russian’ capability, while Moscow argues that its nuclear deterrence has already been compromised by the Alliance’s actions.

Philosophic disagreements, however, aren’t the only reason the missile defense dialogue has become mute. Because of the political crisis in Ukraine, the NATO-Russia Council Missile Defense Working Group, which Mr. Zadra had chaired since 2009, was suspended in April 2014. True, the talks hadn’t been going well and the Working Group hadn’t held a meeting since autumn 2013, but suspending any forum for discussion is almost never a good idea, and that’s certainly the case here.

After making the above points, Mr. Zadra closed by emphasizing again that NATO’s missile defense plans are not directed against Russia. Such assurances, as Mr. Rösli later pointed out, mean little to Russian leaders still afflicted with Cold War-style anxieties, and have prompted them to invest in their own missile defense capabilities.

Missile Defense: Unnecessary, Ineffective and Expensive?

Bruno Rösli began his presentation by reminding those listening that one can find criticisms of NATO’s missile defense plans far closer to home than Moscow. As he sees it, the criticisms turn on necessity, feasibility and costs:

  • It’s not obvious, Rösli stated, that NATO members will face any serious ballistic missile threats in the near future. The Alliance has frequently pointed to the Iranian nuclear program as the primary motive for developing a BMD capability, but Tehran may be years away from being able to combine a nuclear warhead with a ballistic missile and then launch an attack into the heart of Europe. Moreover, if Iran and the P5+1 nations succeed in reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement this year, the Iranian threat scenario will become even less likely.
  • Second, just how reliable NATO’s missile defense system is – either in whole or in part – is questionable, as the mixed results of test trials have shown.
  • Finally, missile defense is expensive. Although it is unclear what the total cost of NATO’s system will be, the United States alone will pay several billion dollars for the long-term operation and support of BMD elements in Europe.

Non-NATO participation in Missile Defense

After considering the current status of NATO’s missile defense system, looking at the impact it’s had on Alliance-Russia relations, and highlighting the system’s perceived drawbacks, the discussion ultimately turned to the potential participation of non-member states – particularly Switzerland – in regional missile defense. Mr. Zadra confirmed that the Alliance is open to outside participation in the program, but only on a case-by-case basis that would be based on a) trust and transparency building, b) information exchanges and mutual consultation, c) technical cooperation and joint training, and/or d) other more advanced forms of collaboration.

Given the ‘fuzzy’ threat scenario, however, it is not immediately clear why Switzerland should immerse itself in the missile defense debate. As Rösli confirmed, not only is the development of a national missile defense capability unfeasible, joining NATO’s BMD program is also not compatible with Swiss neutrality.

Yet Rösli concluded by arguing that Switzerland cannot ignore the missile defense debate. NATO’s plans have already had a significant impact on the European security landscape and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Although it is unlikely that Switzerland would be directly targeted by a missile attack, policy-makers must still consider ‘what-if’ scenarios and make contingency plans. Indeed, Switzerland’s location in the center of Europe highlights the importance of dialogue about NATO’s BMD capabilities, especially in the area of civil defense and early warning.

After considering all the above points, the Evening Talk participants concluded that while NATO’s BMD capabilities cannot provide full protection against hostile missiles, they nevertheless represent an important “insurance policy” for the future.

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