The Future of NATO’s Air and Missile Defence

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Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii. Courtesy of US Army/Wikimedia Commons

This Occasional Paper aims to contribute to the nascent discussion on NATO’s future air and missile defence system by discussing the shortfalls in its current approach, and identifies the key lines of effort needed to remedy these deficits.

Since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, NATO has attempted to retool itself to gradually prepare for great power competition. The Alliance has undertaken a number of steps consistent with the NATO Readiness Initiative to generate the capacity to respond to escalation on its eastern flank. NATO’s forthcoming future warfighting Capstone Concept will also emphasise countering threats emanating from Russia.

However, this paper argues that NATO’s approach to air and missile defence has not kept pace with this broader transformation. Given the importance of long-range precision strike assets to Russia’s strategic and operational frameworks, this represents a gap in the Alliance’s posture and thus its credibility. This paper identifies the shortcomings that would prevent NATO from mounting a credible defence against the multi-tiered salvos that Russia can generate. The paper also highlights the changes NATO needs to make to its air defence system so that it can respond to the twin challenges of a peer competitor and sub-peer threats.

The authors outline the purpose of the paper in this short video

Key Points

  • NATO’s air and missile defence systems currently lack both the capacity and the capability to meet the air threat challenges of great power competition. This has ramifications for NATO’s ability to project power and provide for the safety of its populations and critical infrastructure.
  • In order to meet the evolving threat environment, the Alliance’s priority must be to conceptually reframe its understanding of integrated air and missile defence (IAMD).
  • NATO should not view air defence in binary terms – defended or undefended. The purpose of IAMD is to protect a select subset of critical targets for long enough for the air threat to be negated by other means.
  • The efficiency of air defence will be drastically improved through effective offence–defence integration. The suppression of enemy air threat capabilities, such as launchers, surface vessels and bombers, should be elevated from a subcomponent of offensive counter-air in NATO doctrinal parlance to assume a place equal to suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) as a joint strike objective for Allied operations. Without this, the air defences on which SEAD missions depend will be overwhelmed.
  • There should be closer coordination between the NATO Air and Missile Defence Committee and the Civil Emergency Planning Committee to better integrate active and passive defence mechanisms.
  • In the long run, the requirements of a genuinely integrated system can only be met and afforded through functional specialisation at a national level and resource pooling for the Alliance.
  • As such, this paper proposes a series of steps in which key air defence assets are committed to NATO for employment as tensions increase, in a similar manner to the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which will support a NATO-level integrated air and missile defence system. The expansion of shared funding beyond command and control for certain NATO-provisioned assets will also need to be considered.


Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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Rear Admiral Archer Macy

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Ali Stickings

Associate Fellow; Business Manager for Defence Space at Frazer-Nash Consultancy

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