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The US Administration’s new Missile Defence plans

Commentary, 16 February 2010
Aerospace, Americas, Defence Policy, Technology, Europe
The Obama Administration has outlined a refocusing of the United States missile defence plans, revising the approach previously taken by the Bush White House. Central to the plan is the deployment of more mobile systems that could assuage the once sceptical Russians.

The Obama Administration has outlined a refocusing of the United States missile defence plans, revising the approach previously taken by the Bush White House. Central to the plan is the deployment of more mobile systems that could assuage the once sceptical Russians.

 By Avnish Patel for RUSI.org

10th Missile Defence Conference

The recent refocusing of Missile Defence policy by the US government is a significant move away from the Bush Administration's European 'Third Site' aspirations towards more mobile and cost-effective systems. This strategy will be global in scale but 'will pursue a phased adaptive approach to missile defence within each region that is tailored to the threats and circumstances unique to that region'.  In Europe, this approach is known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) and the Administration is committed to implementing the policy within a NATO context.

The PAA aims to provide more enhanced opportunities for international engagement compared to the bilateral nature of the 'Third Site' which saw Poland agreeing to deploy ground-based missile interceptors and the Czech Republic accommodating missile tracking radars. The emphasis in the European theatre will now be away from fixed silos towards more mobile systems such as the sea-based Aegis BMD system and the SM-3 interceptor missile. The system has to be seen as affordable, technically proven and strategically focused on emerging regional threats.

The forthcoming February 2010 publication of the US Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) envisages new BMD systems as being fiscally sustainable, cost-effective and technically accomplished. Perceived as bloated and underperforming, the Obama Administration aims to burn the fat off the missile defence programme and has undertaken the scrapping of the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) and Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) programmes and the restructuring of the Airborne Laser (ABL). Now called the Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB), the US Missile Defense Agency announced last week that a modified 747 Jumbo Jet equipped with a High Energy Laser successfully intercepted and destroyed two short range ballistic missiles off the California coast. The significance of this achievement will galvanise the industry collaborators in this project, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.  Further pressure will undoubtedly be applied by certain elements in the US Congress, urging the Administration to expand the scope of testing to further validate the system's effectiveness and to make it a fully viable option.

Ramifications in Europe and the UK

As President Ahmedinejad announced ominously the arrival of a nuclear-capable Iran on the anniversary of the Islamic Republic's revolution, there is now an urgent imperative to reconstitute the international strategic response. The Review articulates the deployment of evolving capabilities to adequately address the developing Iranian threat within an adaptable architecture.

Policymakers will have to assess the nature of this threat and how US intelligence assessments have underscored this new policy by indicating that Iran's short- and -medium range ballistic missile capability is overtaking its long-range intercontinental (ICBM) capabilities. 

In the case of Iranian aggression reaching a tipping point, it would provide a greater opportunity for collaborative action in Europe, including the UK. Missile Defence does not feature in the latest UK Ministry of Defence Green Paper, Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review, as the issue is too focused on capability.

Nevertheless, with high-level European participation at a major policy conference to be organised by RUSI, it would seem that there will be a serious policy response to the changes emanating from Washington D.C. 

The European PAA would provide a robust security umbrella against current Iranian missile capabilities, utilising existing capacity but having the flexibility to improve by integrating new technological advances following rigorous testing. Allied participation is integral to the European PAA and the US is committed to making the PAA its contribution to a NATO missile defence capability.

The multilateral NATO context ensures the necessity of appropriate burden sharing and the PAA would support NATO's programme for an integrated command and control system (Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence or ALTBMD) for territorial missile defence. Bilaterally, individual NATO allies will still be able to contribute by providing missile defence capabilities or by hosting European PAA assets on their territory.

For its part the United Kingdom's engagement in missile defence to date has consisted of being a close and helpful partner to the United States, in particular, by providing bases such as RAF Menwith Hill and RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. In addition to being afforded the protection of the shield, the UK will also benefit by being an intelligent customer with the necessary access to technology should the threat make missile defence a national priority. However, this policy further restricts autonomy where the UK is already dependent on the US for theatre missile defence.

Nevertheless, the Obama plan is positive for the UK because:

  • it is more broadly NATO/Europe focused than the Bush Third Site plan;
  • the maritime capabilities are agile and can provide protection in unexpected environments; and,
  • should the need arise, a sea based option using modular adaptation of the Type 45 Destroyer would be an obvious UK contribution to multinational missile defence.

Assuaging Russian concerns 

One such agreement is the Romanian decision to host at least two short-to-medium-range missile interceptors that will be operational by 2015. Russian concerns that were initially assuaged by the removal of the 'Third Site' initiatives of the Bush Administration have again been heightened by the US overtures towards Romania. This is part of the complex diplomatic tango between the US and Russia that is still too early to judge.

Both countries are manoeuvring over interconnecting issues such as containing Iran, perceived US encroachment in the Russian sphere of influence and nuclear proliferation developments such as the stalled talks on a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Despite Russian scepticism and hardball over negotiations regarding the START Treaty, the mutual security benefits of the European Phased Adaptive Approach allow for a Russian contribution if the political circumstances were appropriate. The latest US initiative reflects the urgency to be flexible and mobile against an ever evolving threat, but is underscored by an appreciation of financial austerity and budgetary constraints. 

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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