NATO’s New Strategic Concept and Missile Defence

As the Lisbon Summit approaches, momentum is gathering on the adoption of NATO's new Strategic Concept and the prospect of making missile defence one of its core missions. Whilst the United States and NATO are close to reaching a consensus on missile defence, Russia and Turkey's concerns with hosting a radar site still need to be addressed more fully.

By Avnish Patel

The adoption of the new Strategic Concept at the NATO Lisbon Summit in late November will mark the first update of NATO's long-term strategy since 1999. Strategic clarity will be based on defining NATO's new roles and responsibilities, rolling out new military capacities and identifying where political reform is needed.

NATO's ambition to make missile defence a core mission within the new Concept is beginning to gain traction. If this materialised, European alliance members would integrate their individual capabilities into the proposed system endorsed by the Obama Administration, namely the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA). Within this context, the latest UK policy statement, as espoused in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), provides a positively vague declaration regarding an appropriate UK contribution.[1]

There has been consternation in the US over the level of European defence spending, as seen in the recent public expressions of concern at the UK SDSR by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Whilst it is assumed that the US will carry the bulk of the financial burden, the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has stated that territorial missile defence would cost NATO less than 200m Euros over ten years.[2] A leaked briefing by the NATO Industrial Advisory Group has also recommended that NATO should consider the creation of a commonly funded pool of interceptors that would potentially offset any discrepancy between US missile defence capabilities and European NATO members.[3]

The PAA reflects the US Administration's austerity on existing programmes; it is envisaged that it will consist of tested and operationally effective systems, be responsive to the current threat, cost effective and adaptable to evolving threats and capabilities. There is a certain emollient nature to this policy, aiming to sooth Russian prickliness that had arisen out of the Bush Administration's previous, contentious plan to field ten long-range interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. The newly envisaged extensive and flexible architecture is due to be built in stages between now and 2020, with the first phase being the placement of sea-based Aegis naval assets around Europe. Romania and Poland are due to host SM-3 land-based missiles in future phases by 2015 and 2018 respectively.

To help tie up the first phase of the PAA architecture, fellow NATO member Turkey has been approached to host high-powered X-band radar on its territory, but a number of issues need to be resolved prior to the Lisbon Summit (when NATO members vote whether to add missile defence to the Strategic Concept). Due to the consensual nature of NATO, in that any proposed system has to meet the approval of all twenty-eight members, Turkish concerns and the assurances it seeks have to be taken seriously. Firstly, Turkey is in a precarious position: given its NATO membership and long-held EU aspirations, it will want to placate its Western allies without alienating its northern and eastern neighbours. Indeed, Turkey would want missile defence packaged within the Strategic Concept without naming any specific country as a missile threat.

The Group of Experts, convened by the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to help develop the new Strategic Concept, explicitly states: 'Defending against the threat of a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran has given birth to what has become, for NATO, an essential military mission".[4] Turkey is wary of antagonising Iran, it would rather maintain the 'zero problems' policy with neighbours, as envisaged by the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Burgeoning trade and energy links, as well as Turkey's interlocutory role in Iran's dispute over its nuclear programme would also be jeopardised.

Secondly, any proposal would have to ensure that Turkey is fully protected under the system's security umbrella and that it would have considerable input in setting the rules of engagement with regards to the command and control structure at operational level. Thirdly, Turkey has requested instant access to data on missile threats and assurances that this will not be available to non-NATO members such as Israel. Relations between Turkey and Israel have suffered recently, following the Israel Gaza offensive in 2008-09 and the fallout over the Mavi Marmara incident when eight Turks were killed in May 2010. US diplomatic elbow-twisting has also come into play with hints that the US Congress is threatening to adopt a resolution condemning the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an issue that Turkey has long lobbied against successfully.

The picture suggests a situation not as simple as Turkey having to choose between the NATO Alliance (and ultimately the US) and it's regional aspirations and ties with its neighbours. In terms of realpolitik, Turkey could offer cooperation on missile defence in return for leverage on its EU membership aspirations, especially with regards to those most resistant, such as Germany. For a comprehensive and effective European missile defence architecture, Turkey, as a key component, must be made to feel a valued partner. The NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has consistently stated that Russian collaboration on European territorial missile defence offers the greatest potential for enhancing NATO-Russia cooperation and is a political must. This is in tune with the Obama Administration's theme of 'resetting' relations with Russia, but also paradoxically reveals that even after the Cold War, the former Soviet Union is a key driving force for maintaining NATO's relevance.

Within the context of a growing consensus on 21st Century security threats, Russia would act as a catalyst in other areas, such as reducing nuclear and conventional weapons, trafficking, counter-terrorism and stabilising Afghanistan where NATO is seeking Russian assistance in providing helicopters and training pilots and police.[5] Initial Russian scepticism has been tempered recently, with positive signs emanating from the tripartite Deauville Summit (October 18-19), where French, German and Russian Heads of State met to discuss future military and economic cooperation between the EU, NATO and Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev has also announced that he will attend the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) at the Lisbon Summit. This is certainly a diplomatic coup, but it does not immediately signal a seismic shift on missile defence from a Russian perspective that some might suggest.

Along with strategic cooperation there has to be realistic expectations of reciprocal transparency. Initial cooperation will be limited, reflecting certain caveats and the need for incremental steps that are mutually beneficial. Russia will want to maintain its strategic independence and room for manoeuvre; most importantly it will need further guarantees that such a system will not undercut its own deterrent and strategic nuclear forces. Russia is also keen to reach a consensus on defining and identifying common threats, of which the most pressing for NATO and the US is a growing ballistic threat from Iran.

Even though Turkey has requested that specific threats not be addressed in the Strategic Concept. Russia recently cancelled the delivery of S-300 long range surface-to-air missile systems to Iran, stating that this would violate UN sanctions, which have been imposed due to concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. Russia has also stated that it would require equal footing in a proposed system, the parameters of such a co-ordinated system, including funding, however, would need to be comprehensively clarified following an endorsement at Lisbon. Negotiating and implementing a mutually beneficial missile defence system may require an element of quid pro quo, as Russia continues to frustrate NATO at other junctures. One such example is Russia's apparent insistence on troop limits in states that joined NATO since 1991, such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Further considerations would also need to be given to facilitating industrial collaboration opportunities with Russian defence companies.

The diplomatic groundwork is continuing to be laid by the NATO Secretary General; his rhetoric, however, will have to be matched in the adoption of the new NATO Strategic Concept in Lisbon. Assuaging sceptical Alliance members, such as Turkey, and bringing Russia into closer co-operation will require deft political and diplomatic footwork. Whilst the US, Russia and Europeans in NATO interpretatively differ over existing and potential threats, Roberto Zadra has highlighted that perceptions of an existing BMD threat does not have to be the key central decision to develop a missile defence capability. Furthermore, Zadra points out: 'it would suffice to say that there is the 'potential' that such a threat might eventually materialise in order to conclude that missile defence would be useful as an insurance policy for the future'.[6]

The Strategic Concept should be bullish in its intentions regarding the Alliance's future aims and the inclusion of missile defence will be a defining step. It will help negotiate the longer-term considerations of economic viability, political will, military interoperability and strategic consequences.


The Twelfth RUSI Missile Defence Conference on 15-16 June 2011 will discuss the above issues and will feature authoritative presentations from senior military representatives, policymakers, industry and analysts, with the objective of addressing the key issues, policies and capabilities surrounding European missile defence.

Avnish Patel is the Departmental Executive Officer and Research Analyst for the Military Sciences Department at RUSI.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.


[1] 'Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review', p. 29.

[2] NATO Press Release - 'Afghanistan, NATO Reform and Missile Defence on Defence Ministers' Agenda, 7 June 2010.

 [3] "NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement - Analysis and Recommendations of the Group of Experts on a New Security Concept for NATO", p. 11 (17 May 2010).

[4] "NATO Advisory Group Floats Proposals for Shared Interceptor Pool", Inside Missile Defense, Vol. 16, No. 21; October 20. 2010 (p.1,8). (

[5]  'The NATO and Russia Embrace' by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, The Moscow Times, 25 October 2010.

[6] Roberto Zadra, 'NATO, Russia and Missile Defence', RUSI Journal (Vol. 155, No. 5, Oct/Nov 2010, p. 14).


Avnish Patel

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