New Horizons in Trans-Atlantic Ballistic Missile Defense

A brief attempt to explain how NATO’s missile defense politics has changed, specifically regarding nuclear defense. During the Cold War, the East and West were two separate camps which daily faced the prospect of nuclear conflict. Today, however, the Euro-Atlantic community is much more free, united and secure.


After achieving NATO enlargement, with growing concern over the al Qaeda threat in the wake of September 11, the United States attempted to achieve homeland security through reviving its missile defense plans. The Bush administration sought to fuse transatlantic missile defense plans for 10 interceptor missiles in Poland with those for an early warning radar system to be based in the Czech Republic. During the G-8 Summit in Germany, the Russian president offered the joint use of the Gabala radar located in Azerbaijan. Moscow warned that U.S. plans risked triggering a new arms race and stated that it strongly opposed any deployment of missiles in its own backyard. Unfortunately, amid all the momentous decisions to emerge from the NATO Lisbon Summit in November 2010, the transatlantic community reached a consensus, and ruled that the ballistic missile defense system’s deployment interoperability meant it would form a reliable shield for the Allies. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” said French President Sarkozy, naming Iran as the main threat to NATO. Turkey, however, argued that NATO should not name any particular country. “Forget including any country. The missile shield project should not target any country,” Turkish President Gül commented to a colleague.

After this critical paradigm shift, Russia expressed its readiness to cooperate with NATO in developing the European missile defense shield architecture. NATO favored a dual independent system, but Moscow preferred a joint C3-I exchange system. Russian President Medvedev indicated that any missile shield that does not include Russia would be ineffective and would be a threat to stability. Disagreement remains on a multitude of issues. Russia voiced its displeasure after Romania announced that it had reached agreement with the United States on a missile interceptor system.

In this paper I make a brief attempt to explain how NATO’s missile defense politics has changed, specifically regarding nuclear defense. During the Cold War, the East and West were two separate camps which daily faced the prospect of nuclear conflict. Today, however, the Euro-Atlantic community is much more free, united and secure.

From an academic perspective I pose the following questions: Has the Cold War, in fact, ended? Can we attain the dream of a nuclear-free world? What progress on this has been made with Russia and how might Iran respond? In this broader context, what does NATO have to offer Russia? Can Moscow face improving its relations with Brussels without feeling isolated?

In this paper, I attempt to describe both the changing security environment with regard to the international balance of power and NATO’s answers to the questions of missile proliferation and the WMD problem as set out within the scope of its new strategic horizons.


During the two-day Valdai Meeting in Moscow, I came to the conclusion that there are three important strategic topics that are likely to continue into the next decade. First, Russia has knowledge and experience in ballistic missile detection and interceptor capability, and is eager to win equal partner status, with sectoral format responsibility, in the NATO project. Second, Moscow is suspicious about the missile battalions in Romania and Poland, and the deployment of a surface naval fleet. Third, although tensions throughout the Arab world are acute, and military operations are underway in Libya, China’s growing economy and its military expeditionary missile development capabilities represent another precarious circumstance, with implications that are, potentially, even more grave. Russia’s military and diplomatic elite strongly opposed the deployment of modern interceptor missiles that gave NATO a foothold in Central Europe, and described them as a threat to national security interests in Russia's backyard.

A nuclear free world: reality or dream?

Why are nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles the most important issue on the agenda in Transatlantic defense policy? Ballistic missiles make the nuclear balance more precarious, due to their short flight time and therefore their usefulness in preemptive attacks on an opponent's nuclear forces. A Transatlantic Missile Defense System (MDS) could also be an important step toward the creation of a European security zone. But more importantly, the link between the accelerated development of missile defenses, especially anti-ballistic defenses, using all available means could be perceived as establishing the foundations for a future missile defense architecture. On the other hand, moving beyond the focus on Iran’s missile capabilities and possible the threat it poses to world security, there is extensive speculation about China’s future, particularly about how it might use its economic growth to expand its influence abroad and alter the status quo in international politics. Given this context, we may see China develop from being an emerging economic power into a rising military power. From the realist perspective of diplomatic history and international politics, China’s economic and technological growth could undoubtedly lead to more advanced military capabilities and strategies in the near future. Indeed, China is getting ready to project its power through deploying its new aircraft carrier and aerospace capabilities. China’s navy has recently been moving to open Mediterranean and North Africa shores.

Why do the USA and RUSSIA agree on nuclear disarmament?

Before considering arguments about NATO's mid- and long-term strategy, we have to remember what happened in the past, and take its aftermath into account. Thus, during the Cold War, two superpowers participated in an arms race to see who could create the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. This was called the “balance of terror.” The results of this possible war led to a major reevaluation by decision makers on each side. The guiding concept behind their official nuclear policies was that there would a nuclear attack would leave no winners, a nuclear strike would be like opening Pandora’s Box. The new administration in Washington has pledged to "hit the reset button" with Russia, as it needs to cooperate with Moscow if it is to make progress on difficult issues such as Afghanistan and Iran. President Obama did, however, make it clear that the United States would actively seek to improve relations, become more flexible in dealing with issues like missile defense and would make arms control a major goal of U.S. strategy. On April 1st, President Obama signed a Joint Statement with Russian President Medvedev, asserting their commitment "to achieving a nuclear free world." It was phrased in a breathtakingly positive tone with regard to negotiations on further cuts to strategic offensive weapons. In May 2010, President Medvedev set Russia the same goal. The April 2010 New START agreement between Russia and the United States sets a limit for each state – of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads – that is to be reached within seven years of the treaty becoming effective.

After the cold war’s dangerous legacy, a turning point in nato's new missile defense strategy

Nations, like individuals, tend to be prisoners of their past. Thus, NATO's military strategy has been based on the doctrine of first strike during a conventional Soviet attack, with its counter measures probing deep into the heart of Eastern Europe. Within this context, NATO today addresses a broader spectrum of security challenges than it did in the past, and has to protect its populations both at home and abroad. Moreover, on December 16, 2002, the European Union and NATO adopted a joint declaration titled the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). In this regard, NATO and the European Union are the two main institutional components of post-World War II peace in Europe. The network of radar detection systems that identify an incoming threat is equally important as the missile systems. Missile defense operates as a tiered system with different stages at which a threat can be engaged. A missile is difficult to target during the launch, rapid acceleration and so long as it is positioned at an acute angle. It is easiest to target in mid-flight. A descending missile is not only a fast-moving target, but also presents a very high risk.

Understanding White House-Kremlin tensions

The current tension between Washington and Moscow over the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Europe is a legacy of the Cold War arms race. Further, the increasing availability of highly accurate guidance technologies in developing states means that their missiles will soon become precise enough to strike individual targets. Beyond Reagan’s SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) strategy, the George Bush, George W. Bush and Obama administrations continued heading unwaveringly in one direction, actively seeking NATO involvement in a common BMD system. In mid-2008, the United States negotiated and signed BMD agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic. Essentially, these agreements were designed to guard against a possible ballistic missile threat, and included 10 interceptors in Poland and an X-band tracking radar based in the Czech Republic. NATO allies also opted to join BMD systems. But Russia viewed this as a threat to its own missile defenses and its overall security. Why do they see the Missile Defense Project (MDP) as a new threat to Russia? One important aspect of Russian-Iranian relations is that Russia’s political and military elite, in contrast to that of the United States, does not consider Iran a threat. While the United States views Iran, Libya and North Korea as “rogue states” Russia officially rejected that term, viewing them instead as “opposite numbers” and former clients of the Soviet Union. Particularly, when it comes to the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile deployment, Russia does not perceive the same threat level as the United States – neither to its territory nor to its troops stationed abroad. In September 2009, working from new threat assessments, the Obama Administration announced it planned to scrap the Bush plan, and instead opting to deploy regional BMD capabilities in Europe. In the short term, this new system, the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), would be based on an expansion of existing BMD sensors and interceptors, such as the Navy’s Aegis BMD system. Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev hailed this decision, which removed one issue obstructing U.S. efforts to enlist Russian support on Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear arms control. "We value the U.S. president's responsible approach toward implementing our agreements," Medvedev said in an address shown on national television. "I am ready to continue this dialogue." Thus, NATO's new missile defense plans open an important potential gateway to cooperation with Russia.

The Lisbon summit and a new strategy for active missile defense

At the Lisbon summit, NATO's objective focused on approving a new, updated re-definition of the goals, policy and strategy of the Transatlantic alliance: one that took into account the new security environment and missile defense politics, giving it a renewed goal under the broader NATO mission as determined by Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington. The Alliance outlined the development of territorial missile defense through an expansion of the existing BMD program, its integration with the United States and the planned implementation of missile defense ahead of the NATO Defense Ministers session in June 2011. The new Strategic Concept NATO adopted at the Lisbon summit stated: “We will actively seek cooperation on missile defense with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners.” Russia has also voiced its opposition to the planned system, which is eventually to include additional land-based radars, interceptors and Aegis class missiles deployed to battle ships. In this regard, “NATO’s [control] button will always be a U.S. button. As for our button – we too intend to retain full, sole, control of it,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In Turkey’s name, sensors will be installed in the systems based in these countries. However, Turkey opposes the naming of Iran as a threat in NATO documents. Russian experts believe that Turkey's decision to allow the deployment of NATO's missile defense system on its soil is based on Ankara's desire to position itself as a key power broker in the region, and to win equal respect in the West and in the East.

Russian Military Forces and Missile Defense Deployment 

The Alliance's primary aim is the defense of southeastern Europe through the deployment and permanent stationing of Aegis ships in the eastern Mediterranean. The second phase envisages a ground-based version of the naval system being deployed in Romania. In the third phase, that ground version would be deployed in Poland, but with more advanced interceptors. Up to that point, these systems would be able to defend Europe, but not the United States. Once the development and testing stages are complete, the United States will deploy the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor to enhance our ability to counter medium- and intermediate-range missiles and potential future ICBM threats to the United States from the Middle East. The Alliance’s Lisbon Summit (in November 2010) resulted in the decision to develop a wholly integrated territorial missile defense capability. The Romanian and Polish governments agreed to offer facilities that would host the new system. Current plans call for the installation of land-based interceptors in the two countries by 2015 and 2018, respectively. Turkey has been mentioned as a possible site for U.S. missile defense radar. Although Russia initially welcomed the cancellation of the Bush administration’s plan, later it found reason to criticize the Obama plan, reviving their argument that it would compromise Russia’s nuclear forces.

The Russian perspective on missile defense: cooperation or a new arms race?

In this paper we argue that a better understanding of missile defense policy requires from Moscow more enlightened defense ideas and greater concern for future perspectives. Why does Russia oppose NATO missile defense politics, and what kind of applicable alternate proposals does it recommend? What has changed in the last three decades between NATO and Russia? The development of a result-oriented NATO-Russia partnership, geared toward finding common approaches to common security challenges, is also an essential element of the transformation of NATO’s agenda. The creation of the NATO-Russia Council in May 2002 marked the beginning of a more pragmatic phase of this relationship.

From Russia’s perspective, there are two key factors in its relationship with NATO. First, the alliance continues to pose a challenge to Russia's security interests. Second, Moscow feels that extending NATO to Russia's borders was a move provoked by discussions on its eventual expansion into the geopolitical arena of East Central Europe and the Caucasus, negatively impacting Russia's ability to play the role of Big Brother. In 2008 President Putin, discussing the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, said that if Ukraine permitted NATO’s missile defense systems to be located on its territory, it could potentially be targeted by Russian nuclear weapons. The Russian government felt that those U.S. systems could weaken the strength of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Russia is also hopeful that the Obama administration will cancel its plans to deploy missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, as Medvedev stressed, “Let me mention the top priorities. The main one is a qualitative increase in the troops’ readiness, primarily the strategic nuclear forces, which would be equipped with the latest equipment. In the past year, we have transformed a whole range of combat units and formations by providing them with modern equipment, and in 2011 we will begin the large-scale rearmament of the army and navy,’’ he said. Military officials indicate that about 25% of the 1.5 trillion rubles (43 billion dollars) budgeted for weapons purchases this year will be spent on upgrading old equipment. NATO Secretary General Rasmussen expressed his hope for attaining a common missile defense system with Russia by 2020. However, he also said that NATO has no intention of compromising when it comes to its principal issues. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned the West and NATO of a new arms race if the United States and Europe fail to agree on the thorny issue of missile defense. "In the coming decade we face the following alternatives: either we reach an agreement on missile defense and create a fully-fledged joint mechanism for cooperation, or [...] a new round of the arms race will begin," Medvedev said. Russia wants a shared command post in order to guarantee that the shield is not targeting its missiles, while NATO has opted to establish two separate systems designed to be run by the respective authorities in close cooperation. Under NATO’s proposal, Russia will be expected to develop its own ballistic missile defense architecture. While NATO favors two separate shields which exchange information, Russia continues to push for a joint system. First, Russia’s proposal entails cooperating in a “sectoral” format, in which parties will be responsible for intercepting ballistic missiles coming from particular geographic areas. Second, Russia has demanded equal partner status as a prerequisite for its involvement in any potential joint NATO-Russia missile defense architecture. Therefore, the best solution would be to divide Europe into two zones: one to be protected by Russia and the other by NATO. Moscow is concerned with the later stages of the PAA (2015–2020), which will see the installation of land-based SM-3 interceptor facilities in Poland and Romania. The deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in Europe is perceived as a threat to Russia’s second-strike capability. Russia has responded by claiming it has developed a new generation of warheads that could potentially overcome America’s missile defense shield.


There are multiple risks associated with the widespread use of nuclear power in the Middle East. In that context, it is worth taking the different traditions into account in finding alternative approaches to nuclear arms control. Missile defense is not an instant fix that will solve the problems of non-strategic nuclear weapons and U.S.-Russian relations overnight.

First, NATO and Russia should build a consensus on missile threats. They should conclude that Iran’s program will inevitably produce missiles capable of hitting targets not only in Europe, but also in the United States and much of Russia in the foreseeable future. Based on this consensus, Russia and NATO should sign a founding act on missile defense cooperation. Both sides should increase the transparency of their strategies and doctrines, and engage in more frequent dialogues, openly sharing their concerns with each other. That will build trust and enable a higher, enhanced level of cooperation. Finally, progress on a NATO-Russia joint ballistic missile defense system could make the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe a less controversial issue. We must keep in mind what diplomatic history tells us: The Great Powers have always defended their vital interests throughout the world, either through “diplomacy” or through a “terrible overbearing” influence. But in order to maintain their unified, dedicated pursuit of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and mutual respect, we need better cooperation and more determination than was apparent in the last century.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.