Ballistic missile defence

  • Last updated: 20 Nov. 2015 08:41

Proliferation of ballistic missiles poses an increasing threat to Allied populations, territory and deployed forces. Over 30 countries have, or are acquiring, ballistic missile technology that could eventually be used to carry not just conventional warheads, but also weapons of mass destruction. The proliferation of these capabilities does not necessarily mean there is an immediate intent to attack NATO, but it does mean that the Alliance has a responsibility to take this into account as part of its core task of collective defence.


  • In 2010, Allies decided to develop a territorial BMD capability to pursue NATO’s core task of collective defence.
  • NATO has the responsibility to protect its European populations, territory and forces in light of the increasing proliferation of ballistic missiles.
  • In 2012 Allies declared an Interim NATO BMD Capability, as a first step towards Initial and Full Operational Capability.
  • NATO BMD capability is based on voluntary national contributions.
  • Several Allies already offered their contributions or are undergoing development or acquisition of further BMD assets such as upgraded ships with ballistic missile-defence capable radars, ground-based Air and Missile Defence systems or advanced detection and alert capability.

More background information

  • Components

    The Alliance is conducting three BMD-related activities:

    1. Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence capability

    The aim of this capability is to protect deployed NATO forces against short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats (up to 3,000-kilometer range). In order to manage the risk associated with the development of such a complex capability, ALTBMD is being fielded in several phases and eventually will merge with the capabilities for territorial BMD that are being developed in parallel.

    The completed capability will consist of a system of systems, comprising low- and high-altitude defences (also called lower- and upper-layer defences), including battle management, communications, command and control and intelligence (BMC3I), sensors and various interceptors. NATO member countries will provide the sensors and weapons systems, while NATO will develop the BMC3I segment and facilitate the integration of all these elements into a coherent and effective architecture.

    The ALTBMD programme was launched in 2005 and currently it is now managed by the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) and its BMD Programme Office.

    The initial activities were mainly focused on system engineering and integration work, and on the development of an integration test bed hosted at the NCIA facilities in The Hague, the Netherlands. The integration test bed is essential to validate development work.

    In early 2010, the first operational ALTBMD capability (called Interim Capability) was fielded. It provides military planners with a planning tool to build the most effective defence design for specific scenarios or real deployments. A more robust version of that capability was fielded at the end of 2010 and provides shared situational awareness. The next version will be delivered in the 2016-2017 timeframe. After that, ALTBMD will be merged with the BMD effort detailed below.

    2. BMD for the protection of NATO European territory, populations and forces

    At the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, NATO leaders decided to develop a BMD capability. They agreed that an expanded ALTBMD Programme should form the command, control and communications backbone of such a system. That decision was based on almost eight years of technical studies and political-military discussions.

    In May 2012 at the Chicago Summit, NATO leaders declared the Interim NATO BMD Capability operational. It offers the maximum coverage within available means to defend NATO’s populations, territory and forces across southern Europe against a limited ballistic missile attack. The Alliance aims to provide full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces against the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles. This coverage is based on the principles of indivisibility of Allied security and NATO solidarity, equitable sharing of risks and burdens, as well as reasonable challenge. It also takes into account the level of threat, affordability and technical feasibility, and is in accordance with the latest common threat assessments agreed by the Alliance.  Should international efforts reduce the threats posed by ballistic missile proliferation, NATO missile defence can, and will, adapt accordingly.

    As part of the US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), Turkey announced in autumn 2011 its decision to host a US-owned and -operated BMD radar at Kürecik. Romania and the United States agreed in 2011 to base Aegis Ashore capabilities at Deveselu airbase in Romania (in the 2015 timeframe), and a similar basing agreement between the United States and Poland entered into force in 2011 to host Aegis Ashore at the Redzikowo military base (in the 2018 timeframe). Also in 2011, Spain and the United States announced an agreement to base four Aegis missile defence ships in Rota, Spain. These assets are national contributions, and are integral parts of the NATO BMD capability.

    Several Allies currently offer their ground-based air and missile defence systems (such as Patriot or SAMP/T) or complementary ships for air-defence protection. Others are developing or acquiring BMD assets that could be eventually made available for NATO BMD.

    In September 2011, the Netherlands announced plans to upgrade four air-defence frigates with extended long-range missile defence early-warning radars as its national contribution to NATO's ballistic missile defence capability. A similar announcement was made in August 2014 by Denmark, which decided to acquire a frigate-based radar system to enhance NATO BMD.

    3. Missile defence cooperation with Russia

    In 2003, under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), a study was launched to assess possible levels of interoperability among the theatre missile defence systems of NATO Allies and Russia.

    Together with this study, several successful computer-assisted exercises have been held to provide the basis for future improvements to interoperability, and to develop mechanisms and procedures for joint operations in the area of theatre missile defence.

    NATO and Russia also examined possible areas for cooperation on territorial missile defence, based on their decision at the Lisbon Summit. They agreed on a joint ballistic missile threat assessment, and to continue dialogue in this area. In April 2012, NATO and Russia successfully conducted a computer-assisted missile defence exercise hosted by Germany.

    In October 2013, NATO-Russia missile defence-related discussions were paused by Russia, and in April 2014, NATO suspended all cooperation with Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis.

  • Mechanisms

    The Defence Policy and Planning Committee (Reinforced) (DPPC(R)) is the senior NATO committee that oversees and coordinates all efforts to develop the NATO BMD capability at the political-military level, as well as providing political-military guidance and advice on all issues related to NATO BMD.

    The Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD) is the senior policy committee responsible for the BMD programme.

    NATO Military Authorities are responsible for developing a military doctrinal framework for BMD and for BMD operational planning and execution.

    Several other NATO senior committees address particular issues related to NATO BMD, such as civil emergency planning, crisis-response measures, or integration of air and missile defence.

  • Evolution

    The key policy document providing the framework for NATO’s activities in the area of BMD is NATO’s Strategic Concept. In addition, BMD is an important aspect of the Deterrence and Defence Posture Review of 2012.

    The Strategic Concept recognises, inter alia, that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, threatens incalculable consequences for global stability and prosperity. During the next decade, proliferation will be most acute in some of the world’s most volatile regions.” Therefore, NATO will “develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of our Alliance. We will actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners.” As a defensive capability, BMD will be one element of a broader response to the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.

    The Deterrence and Defence Posture Review of 2012 states that missile defence can complement the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence; it cannot substitute for them. It is a purely defensive capability and is being established in the light of threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area. It is expected that NATO’s missile defence capabilities would complicate an adversary’s planning, and provide damage mitigation.  Effective missile defence could also provide valuable decision space in times of crisis. Like other weapons systems, missile defence capabilities cannot promise complete and enduring effectiveness. NATO missile defence capability, along with effective nuclear and conventional forces, will signal our determination to deter and defend against any threat from outside the Euro-Atlantic area to the safety and security of our populations.

    Key milestones

    Theatre Missile Defence

    May 2001

    NATO launches two parallel feasibility studies for a future Alliance theatre missile defence system.

    June 2004

    At the Istanbul Summit, Allied leaders direct that work on theatre missile defence be taken forward expeditiously.

    March 2005

    The Alliance approves the establishment of a Programme Management Organization under the auspices of the CNAD.

    September 2006

    The Alliance awards the first major contract for the development of a test bed for the system.

    February 2008

    The test bed is opened and declared fully operational nine months ahead of schedule.

    Throughout 2008

    The system design for the NATO command and control component of the theatre missile defence system is verified through testing with national systems and facilities via the integrated test bed; this paves the way for the procurement of the capability.

    March 2010

    The Interim Capability (InCa) Step 1 is fielded.

    June 2010

    NATO signs contracts for the second phase of the interim theatre missile defence capability, which will include the capability to conduct a real-time theatre missile defence battle.

    July 2010

    The more robust Interim Capability (InCa 2) passes key tests during the Dutch Air Force Joint Project Optic Windmill 2010 exercise.

    December 2010

    At the end of 2010, all InCa 2 components – including BMD sensors and shooters from NATO nations – are linked and successfully tested in an ‘ensemble’ test prior to handover to NATO’s military commanders. InCa 2 is subsequently delivered to the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Uedem, Germany.

    Territorial Missile Defence

    November 2002

    At the Prague Summit, Allied leaders direct that a missile defence feasibility study be launched to examine options for protecting Alliance forces, territory and populations against the full range of ballistic missile threats.

    April 2006

    The study concludes that ballistic missile defence is technically feasible within the limits and assumptions of the study. The results are approved by the CNAD.


    An update of a 2004 Alliance assessment of ballistic missile threat developments is completed.

    April 2008

    At the Bucharest Summit, Allied leaders agree that the planned deployment of European-based US BMD assets should be an integral part of any future NATO-wide missile defence architecture. They call for options for a comprehensive ballistic missile defence architecture to extend coverage to all Allied territory not otherwise covered by the US system to be prepared in time for NATO’s next Summit.

    April 2009

    At the Strasbourg/Kehl Summit, Allies recognise that a future US contribution of important architectural elements could enhance NATO elaboration of the Alliance effort and judge that ballistic missile threats should be addressed in a prioritised manner that includes consideration of the level of imminence of the threat and the level of acceptable risk.

    September 2009

    The United States announces its plan for the EPAA.

    November 2010

    At the November 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon, NATO’s leaders decided to develop a ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability to pursue its core task of collective defence. To this end, they decided that the scope of the existing Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) programme’s command, control and communication capabilities will be expanded beyond the capability to protect forces to also include NATO European populations and territory. In this context, the US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) and other national contributions were welcomed as valuable to the NATO BMD architecture.

    June 2011

    NATO Defence Ministers approve the NATO Ballistic Missile Defence Action Plan.

    September 2011

    Turkey announces a decision to host a US-owned missile defence radar as part of the NATO BMD capability.

    September 2011

    Romania and the United States sign an agreement to base a US Aegis Ashore system in Romania as part of NATO’s BMD capability.

    September 2011

    An agreement between Poland and the United States on basing a US Aegis Ashore system in Poland enters into force.

    September 2011

    The Netherlands announces plans to upgrade four air-defence frigates with extended long-range radar systems as its national contribution to NATO’s BMD capability.

    October 2011

    Spain and the United States announce an agreement to port US Aegis ships in Rota, Spain, as part of the US contribution to NATO’s ballistic missile defence capability.

    February 2012

    Germany announces a decision to offer its Patriot air- and missile-defence systems as a national contribution to NATO’s BMD capability.

    April 2012

    NATO successfully installs and tests the command and control architecture for the Interim Capability at Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany.

    May 2012

    At the May 2012 Chicago Summit, Allies declared the Interim NATO BMD Capability, which is an operationally significant first step, offering the maximum coverage within available means to defend the populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe against a ballistic missile attack”. “However, the aim remains to provide full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces, based on voluntary national contributions, including nationally funded interceptors and sensors, hosting arrangements, and on the expansion of the ALTBMD capability.

    December 2012

    NATO decides to augment Turkish air defence against missiles from Syria. Germany, the Netherlands and the United States deploy Patriot air- and missile-defence systems to eastern Turkey.

    March 2013

    The Unites States announces a revised EPAA.

    October 2013

    Ground-breaking ceremony for the US Aegis Ashore system in Deveselu, Romania.

    February 2014

    First US Aegis destroyer stationed in Rota, Spain.

    June 2014

    Second US Aegis destroyer stationed in Rota, Spain.

    August 2014

    Denmark announces the decision to acquire a frigate-based radar system for NATO BMD.

    September 2014

    NATO Summit in Wales. Allies reiterate basic parameters for NATO BMD and note additional contributions offered or considered by Allies.

    NATO-Russia Council (Theatre) Missile Defence Cooperation


    A study is launched under the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) to assess possible levels of interoperability among theatre missile defence systems of NATO Allies and Russia.

    March 2004

    An NRC theatre missile defence command post exercise is held in the United States.

    March 2005

    An NRC theatre missile defence command post exercise is held in the Netherlands.

    October 2006

    An NRC theatre missile defence command post exercise is held in Russia.

    January 2008

    An NRC theatre missile defence computer-assisted exercise takes place in Germany.

    December 2010

    First meeting of the NRC Missile Defence Working Group aimed at assessing decisions taken at the Lisbon Summit and exploring a possible way forward for cooperation on ballistic missile defence.

    June 2011

    NRC Defence Ministers take stock of the work on missile defence since the 2010 Lisbon Summit.

    April 2012

    Computer-assisted exercise in Ottobrunn, Germany.

    October 2013

    Russia unilaterally pauses the discussions on missile defence in the NRC framework.

    April 2014

    In response to the Ukraine crisis, NATO suspends all cooperation with Russia, including on missile defence.