Missile Defence Pivots Away from Europe?

The Obama Administration has announced a shift in emphasis for missile defence capabilities away from Europe to the US mainland. While this could help allay Russian concerns about the NATO system, Moscow's leaders may require more confidence-building measures.

Following the recent provocative measures taken by North Korea, the Obama Administration announced a new package of missile defence policies on 16 March. Fourteen additional Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs) are to be deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska by 2017. Phase four of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), with the envisaged deployment of enhanced SM-3 IIB interceptors to Poland in 2020, is to be postponed. Resources will instead be reallocated to fund additional GBIs to Alaska as well as improving overall system performance and effectiveness to cover the defence of the US mainland itself by 2017. Furthermore, an environmental impact study will be conducted for an extra GBI site in the US and, in cooperation with the Japanese government, an additional TPY-2 early-warning radar will be deployed in Japan to track North Korean launched missiles aimed at Japan or the US.

Shifting Priorities

In the context of the current economic downturn and from the perspective of the Obama Administration, this reorientation and shifting of funds (up to $1bn) and potential systems from Europe to the US mainland will help to reassure a domestic audience, while framing this as a non-partisan case to protect against direct North Korean and Iranian missile threats. An urgent priority will be to rectify flaws in the GBI system, as mentioned in an influential study on US missile defence systems by the Congressional National Research Council last year.

Integral to this approach will be further testing of the enhanced CEII kill vehicle to further make the GBI system operationally effective against emergent threats from Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Successful testing is a prerequisite (the 'fly before you buy' approach) for the additional fourteen interceptors to proceed. China  has also been expressed concern, suggesting that the latest moves would 'intensify antagonism'. The evolving development of the GBI system will also seek to deter Chinese capabilities, and Beijing may interpret this as another facet of the US strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific region with the regional build-up of US-led missile defence capabilities indicative of this. 

Still Committed to European Missile Defence

The US has made clear it is still committed to implementing the second and third phases of the EPAA and this will no doubt provide reassurance to NATO partners, especially Romania and Poland, who will both host substantial land-based elements of the EPAA capability in the future. The decision will also provide further impetus for European partners to continue to provide credible technical, industrial and political contributions, enhancing interoperability to counter evolving missile threats in the expanding NATO architecture. This is integral to NATO's 'Smart Defence' agenda, allowing countries to innovatively contribute against the backdrop of financial constraints, as well as lessening the US financial and military burden.  

A potential way forward for a modified phase four in the future could see the deployment of extra sensors and Aegis maritime capabilities as well as an increase in the number of launchers and interceptors at land-based SM-3 sites. This would bolster the EPAA in defending the US mainland from threats emanating from the Middle East as well as providing greater defensive coverage in Europe against intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Russian Concerns

The postponement of SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland was anticipated in Europe in some form over the past few months, with President Obama hinting as much last March, when he made unguarded remarks to then Russian President Medvedev, stating that he would be more flexible on missile defence following the US Presidential elections. The postponement of phase four can be also seen as a concessionary measure towards the Kremlin, though not explicit in the official announcement, with funding and technological issues cited, even though it will not dispel longstanding Russian concerns.

The Obama Administration hopes that furthering missile defence cooperation with Russia will also help bring about consensus on other issues that have affected the bilateral relationship such as mutually reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Russian concerns hinge on their perception that the evolving EPAA will threaten its strategic nuclear forces rather than counter Iranian and North Korean threats. In lieu of legally binding guarantees that ensure a NATO Ballistic Missile Defence system will not be directed at Russia's nuclear deterrent, the US and NATO partners must look towards confidence-building measures. This would encompass issues including common threat assessments, joint command-post exercises and reciprocal observance of interceptor tests. This would have to be balanced out by the maintenance of operational sovereignty (NATO has discounted a joint BMD system) as well as confidentiality of sensitive interceptor technology.  

The presence of NATO/US missile defence capabilities in Russia's regional backyard, specifically in Poland (the presence of Patriot batteries will be bolstered by SM-3 Block IIA interceptors in the 2018 timeframe) encourages the Kremlin to view the geopolitical landscape through a Cold War lens.

This would suit the Putin Presidency well, feeding into its anti-US 'strongman' narrative for domestic consumption. Therefore, continuing to push the boundaries in discussions over the EPAA serves the Kremlin's agenda, whilst also justifying its own military modernisation programmes in relation to Russia's ICBM capabilities. Coincidentally, it is thirty years this week since President Reagan made his speech regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka 'Star Wars'), which inspired the present impetus for US missile defence capabilities with his decision to initiate a programme to see if strategic defences were feasible. As ever, the legacy of the Cold War continues to shape the dynamics of the US-Russian missile defence relationship.


Avnish Patel

Research Event Officer

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