Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, April 2, 2001

Missile Defence: European Approaches and Interests

by Klaus Becher, Helmut Schmidt Senior Fellow for European Security, IISS

European NATO countries have been spectators to the debate about defending the US against ballistic missile attacks. While there have been national differences in Europe's reactions to the national missile defence (NMD) programme, it is obvious that most Europeans don't like it. The French seem somewhat more convinced than others that missile defence is inherently foolish and unworkable. Some British experts seem to insist more than others that any programme that might undermine NATO's nuclear deterrence and strategic unity should be avoided. And perhaps Germans, more than others, worry about perceived dangers to the ABM and other arms control treaties, and generally about relations with Russia. Most Europeans at present believe that US defence against long-range ballistic missiles is a slap in the face for Russia, a dangerous provocation for China and an inadequate response to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile technology.

In spite of the widely shared assessment that the US is nevertheless determined, across party lines, to go ahead with missile defence, European allies have continued to offer only lukewarm diplomatic support. At the same time, the issue was not high on the agenda of European leaders, and little effort was made to base public pronouncements on a thorough understanding of the facts concerning technology, costs and goals of actual US missile defence efforts. NMD was allowed to become a bogey in the European debate: Nothing good could come from it.

While this attitude did not cause harm during the indecisive Clinton years, it clearly won't suffice in conversations with the Bush administration. It was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's 1998 Commission report on the accelerating threat of missile attacks with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons that brought missile defence back on the political agenda. Europeans must learn to deal with US missile defence on its merits. Some basic insights must be taken on bord:

Based on the Bush administration's approach to the ongoing nuclear review process, there appears to be a good chance now that further reductions of US strategic nuclear weapons will become possible in conjunction with a move into strategic defences. Such a build-down would be very much in the interest of most European countries, as it would strengthen international non-proliferation and risk-reduction efforts and could increase the prospects for successful regional arms control and disarmament efforts in various strategically exposed parts of the world, including Europe's periphery.

Looking at Russia and the ABM Treaty, Europeans will continue to consider it decisive that the transition is achieved not unilaterally but in cooperation. The continuous record of US-Russian cooperative threat reduction measures and additional achievements such as the new joint early warning centre should be recognised as reassuring demonstrations of the fact that common security has indeed replaced bipolar antagonism, in spite of recurring political obstacles and complications.

Most likely, Moscow will in the end cooperate with the West on missile defence. However, Russian leaders and negotiators will try to extract as high a price as they can. The inclusion of Russian technology, research and industrial capacities in future missile defence systems may well be one central and to a certain extent even attractive component. European defence and aerospace companies would be well advised to fight for their share in the eventual deal not just by seeking a transatlantic foothold in the US defence market but also by engaging Russian capacities now, presumably against massive US resistance.

While it is not necessarily obvious that the US and NATO must urgently build extensive missile defences at this point in time, there is no convincing reason why the US should not go ahead in that direction. This is a matter of strategic choice, and certainly legitimate for the purpose of controlling the right mix of instruments for defence in potential future conflicts while exploiting technological advantages intelligently. European countries may want to actively help shape the ongoing process of strategic change of which missile defence is just one element, and support the emergence of increased stability and cooperation.

The main reason why the US believes in the need for missile defence is that its forces are likely to be fighting wars against aggressors who possess such missiles and are prepared to use them. As Europeans pledge to upgrade their own defence capabilities within NATO and also on their own in ESDP to be better able to share the burdens of maintaining international peace and security, it is more likely than not that European forces will be fighting such wars, too. As one of the consequences of Europe's intensified security and defence ambitions, it should begin to be more concerned about protecting its own troops and installations in theatre as well as at home against the full range of ballistic threats to be expected.

NATO as a whole has been operating under the sound assumption for a number of years that by 2010 all of Europe will be within reach of missiles from outside Europe. European politicians, however, have so far not been willing to acknowledge this assessment publicly, presumably also out of fear that this would impose additional demands on limited defence budgets. If this attitude were ever to change, there would probably be substantial synergies to be found in pursuing the intended upgrade of European C3 (command, control and communications) capabilities in conjunction with a highly integrated systems approach such as integrated extended air defence that has immediate practical application and is multinationally networked by necessity.

The Bush administration's apparent new focus on sea- or air-based boost-phase defence is unlikely to make a big difference from a European viewpoint. The new US eagerness to include forward-based elements and reflect the requirement to protect allies and US troops abroad might be seen by Europeans as an interesting opening to pursue the integrated extended air defence and ballistic missile defence approaches developed jointly in NATO working groups, with French participation, during the 1990s. However, one needs to distinguish between forward-based boost-phase defence and the kind of integrated European TBMD (theatre ballistic missile defence) architecture that might include US sea-based radar and upper-tier interceptor capabilities in the Mediterranean. While these capabilities would help to protect European countries and US troops in Europe by targeting incoming missiles on their re-entry, they would add nothing to US national missile defence against ballistic missile attacks from the Middle East.

For boost-phase intercepts during the burn phase of the missile's engine, interceptors need to be deployed within a few hundred kilometres of the attacking missile's launch site. For threats from the Middle East, this would in practice require land-based forward interceptor sites that are strategically much less attractive than the more flexible sea-based ones. It is unlikely that any future US national missile defence architecture would at the same time provide protection to Europe through boost-phase intercepts. If Europeans want to be protected against missile attacks, they will have to build their own defences, and pay for them.

Politically, missile defence is likely to be seen by European governments mainly as an additional source of potential irritation in the transatlantic relationship at a time of accumulating, partially value-based conflicts over trade and a widespread desire among European politicians to assert Europe's own identity vis-à-vis Washington, New York and Hollywood as a matter of principle. Europeans are unlikely to risk causing further aggravation over missile defence. They should not miss the opportunity, however, as they come out in support of the US on this issue, to win active US support for the EU's own ongoing defence-capabilities efforts. This involves, above all, the establishment of satisfactory conditions for transatlantic defence-industrial interaction.

The institutionalised political, diplomatic and defence-technological cooperation in NATO offers good opportunities to Europeans to make the most of Washington's declared willingness to consult before taking decisions on missile defence. Beyond that, European foreign, security and defence policy should certainly also aspire to influence other actors such as Russia and China, and to provide guidance to European public opinion. The price for failing to play a constructive, determined role might be a popular relapse into the obsolete East-West mindset when European security matters were decided in Washington and Moscow over Europeans' heads. The US-Russian joint statement on strategic stability of 4 June 2000, while listing the strategic commonalties shared by these two powers, makes no mention of the European allies and the need to consult them or others.

European governments would be well advised to make sure they become, or remain, serious and respected actors in the missile defence arena. If Europe wants its voice heard, it must speak up and help to shape developments in pursuit of European interests. There is quite a long list of issues and interests worth pushing from a European viewpoint that are unlikely to be at centre stage if the matter is left to the US, Russia, and China alone. On the other hand, Europeans are not really needed, for example, for placing the issue of continued respect for the ABM treaty on the agenda because Russia, as a party to this treaty, will take care of this point in its own right.

In addition to the interest in developing the transatlantic relationship and maintaining cooperation with Russia, specific European fields of interest that need intensified attention and discussion in the context of the transition towards US deployment of operational ballistic missile defences include:

Such accompanying measures of common security geared at strengthening international confidence in the willingness of the US not to exploit its economic and technological advantage in destabilising ways would not only broaden the common ground with Russia and might attract China to a dialogue on arms control but would also demonstrate the coherence of NATO's conceptual approach to security and cooperation and thus help to keep Europe's own defence identity firmly anchored in the transatlantic alliance.