The future of Missile Defence: A NATO perspective

Speech by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the INSS Missile Defence conference in Israel

  • 15 Jan. 2014 -
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  • Last updated: 15 Jan. 2014 10:41

It is a pleasure to be back in Israel and an honour to speak to you today.  Let me start by thanking the INSS for organizing this timely conference and for the close cooperation the Institute has maintained with NATO for many years.  As Middle Eastern issues rise on the Alliance’s agenda, we will continue to look to the INSS’s scholars for insights on the challenges facing the region in the years ahead.

I think most of us can agree that ballistic missiles represent a special challenge.  They can carry conventional, chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons over short or long distances.  They inject an element of risk into the geopolitical landscape that is hard to measure but highly destabilizing.  

Rogue states can use the possession of such missiles to intimidate their neighbours, extend their influence, and protect their unpopular and deteriorating regimes.  As Israel knows well, ballistic missiles and rockets can be used by extremist groups to terrorize civilian populations, derail political negotiations, and undermine regional stability.  In a nutshell, the proliferation of ballistic missiles is a seminal challenge for security in the 21st century – but fortunately, one that can be met, at least in part, thanks to advances in missile defence technology.

Today I would like to talk to you about what NATO is doing to develop a ballistic missile defence, how we hope to cooperate with Russia, and how NATO and non-Allied states like Israel could engage on this issue in the future.  I will also touch on how missile defence could be a means for states with differing interests in the Middle East and Gulf region to counter threats to their security.

So where does NATO stand on missile defence?

Allies regularly review the potential threats posed by missile proliferation.  They take very seriously the fact that dozens of countries – including several in NATO’s immediate neighbourhood – are developing ballistic missiles of increasing range and sophistication.  Based on our threat assessment, we made the formal decision at our Lisbon Summit in 2010 to begin construction of a NATO missile defence system that could defend NATO’s European territory, population and military forces against potential ballistic missile attacks.  This was a step change compared to previous NATO efforts that focused exclusively on theatre missile defence of deployed forces.   

The NATO system is designed to be big enough to defend against limited attacks by states and non-state actors potentially threatening us, while remaining small enough not to fuel regional arms races.  It is configured (in terms of the types of interceptors, their numbers and locations) to defend against the principal threats to NATO’s European territory, namely, countries in the Middle East, and is not directed against Russia’s much larger and more sophisticated strategic deterrent forces.  

The system includes political, operational and technical strands of work that are complicated and require an enormous amount of cooperation among different nations and stakeholders. The good news is that despite these complexities, the system is on track.

In 2012, at our Chicago Summit, we declared a missile defence ‘interim capability’.  This includes NATO command and control assets and arrangements; a US forward-based AN/TPY-2 radar located in Turkey under NATO’s operational control; and the availability of a US AEGIS-class ship equipped with first-generation SM-3 Block 1A missile defence interceptors.  It’s an operationally significant first step, offering the maximum coverage within available means, to defend our populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe.

Today we are working hard towards our goal of achieving the full operational capability (FOC) of the system, which would mean full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces.  This will be achieved by the phased deployment of new versions of the SM-3 missile at land-based sites in Romania (in 2015) and Poland (in 2018), as well as additional US sea-based assets that will be home-ported in Spain.  Achieving FOC depends on various factors, including command and control arrangements and operational planning.   But within a few years we expect to have an initial operational capability, with full operational capability to be achieved in the first half of the next decade.

In terms of development and deployment, this system embodies the best of transatlantic teamwork.  While the primary assets – the SM-3 interceptors and the forward-based radar – are being provided by the United States, the Netherlands is upgrading four frigates with missile defence radars.  Germany is hosting the NATO command-and-control system at Ramstein, and is considering upgrading its ship-based radars.  Turkey, Romania, Poland and Spain have all agreed to host elements of the system.  And other Allies may provide additional voluntary national contributions to the overall system, to include deployment of additional lower-tier theatre missile defence (TMD) systems.  As the current deployment of German, Dutch and US Patriots to Turkey reminds us, NATO needs additional deployable TMD capabilities in its crisis management toolbox, even as we deploy a territorial BMD capability. 

Of course, NATO’s planned missile defence capabilities will not constitute a shield protecting us against every threat all of the time. But through a range of missile defence capabilities – combining territorial and theatre missile defence systems – NATO can complicate the calculations of potential adversaries by making them think twice about attacking, or even threatening to attack.  And in the last resort, our system could mitigate the catastrophic effects of an attack and even prevent them.

So what’s the place of missile defence in NATO’s overall posture?  The Allies understand that missile defence can complement the deterrent role of nuclear weapons, but it cannot replace them. We see it as part of an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities that can maintain an effective deterrence and defence.  And eventually, missile defence will become part of NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System.

So that’s where we stand at NATO.  But what about Russia?  There, frankly, the news is not so good.

At our Lisbon Summit, the Allies and Russia agreed to work towards cooperation on missile defence, based on a shared appreciation of the threat posed by ballistic missile proliferation and the potential synergies that could be achieved by linking our missile defence capabilities.  But putting that agreement into practice has been extraordinarily difficult.

We have made clear to Russian authorities, many times and at the highest political level, that NATO missile defence does not threaten their strategic nuclear deterrent, and that this will remain the case even when we have reached full operational capability with the sites in Romania and Poland.  It’s a matter of facts and physics.  Our system will defend against limited attacks by short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.  The interceptors to be deployed in Europe are not designed to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Their capabilities are too limited, their planned numbers too few, and their locations too far south.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Many Russian experts have publicly agreed that the US European Phased Adaptive Approach and NATO’s missile defence system, even when fully developed, will have no appreciable impact on Russia’s numerous and highly sophisticated strategic nuclear forces.  This has been documented in numerous scholarly articles by Russian generals and rocket scientists in Russian journals. 

The good news is that this shows that press freedom is not entirely dead in today’s Russia.  The bad news is that Russian leaders and senior officials seem to pay no attention to their own experts.  Instead, they continue to beat the drum about the purported ‘threat’ posed by NATO’s missile defence system to Russia’s strategic retaliatory capability, coupled with ominous warnings of retaliation against a threat that does not, in fact, exist.   Moreover, they continue to seek legally binding guarantees that the system will not be directed against Russia that would effectively limit the capacity of US and NATO missile defence to meet real-world threats – limits that they know are a political non-starter.    

So we were disappointed but not surprised when, after two years of work, Russia decided recently to suspend negotiations in the NATO-Russia Council aimed at finding compromise solutions on missile defence.  Despite this setback, our offer still stands. We had made a very specific proposal for how our cooperation could be taken forward.  It is substantial; it is meaningful; and it deserves another try.

Our goal in NATO remains a combined missile defence architecture that can protect both the Alliance and Russia.  It would include a very high level of integration and day-to-day interaction between the NATO and Russian systems, while maintaining their separate chains of command.

This combined architecture would enable NATO to fulfil its responsibility to protect Alliance territory.  Russia would be able to protect Russian territory.  And both of us would enjoy the benefits of mutually reinforcing capabilities.  In contrast with the Russians’ unrealistic “sectoral” approach, it would preserve NATO’s collective defence obligations as well as Russia’s territorial sovereignty – both important matters of principle.

NATO’s concept would be realized through two joint missile defence centres.  In the first, the NATO-Russia Data Fusion Centre, NATO and Russian officers would monitor incoming intelligence and share early-warning data and other information on a 24/7 basis.  The second, the NATO-Russia Planning and Operations Centre, is where we would actually plan together and coordinate our missile defence operations. 

Let me stress the significance of what NATO has proposed for the second centre.  The idea is for NATO and Russian officers to work together, on a full-time basis, to develop plans for intercepting missiles that may be launched against either party in a range of scenarios.  The centre would develop concepts of operations, rules of engagement and pre-planned responses for coordinated missile defence operations that could be implemented in the event of an actual attack. 

This would offer an extraordinary degree of “jointness,” even though the missile intercepts would be carried out through each party’s separate command and control system.  But there would be substantial cooperation at every stage of the intercept process, and this could greatly enhance the effectiveness of our combined missile defence capabilities.

We have also offered to develop full transparency on our respective missile defence plans and capabilities.  This could involve an annual exchange of information about each party’s current and planned missile defence capabilities extending several years into the future, providing confidence and predictability to military planners and political decision-makers alike. 

This sort of close cooperation is the best way to protect our peoples while also addressing Russia’s concerns. Unfortunately, these proposals are no longer being discussed.

We’re also disappointed that even the US cancellation of Phase 4 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (the termination of work to develop the SM-3 Block 2B missile) has not changed Russia’s attitude. Previously, Russian leaders had focused on Phase 4 as their primary concern, as it was intended to provide some capability to intercept ICBMs launched by rogue states (although it would have had only limited capacity to counter Russia’s more sophisticated ICBMs). 

But despite the US decision to cancel the system, Russia still raises objections. This has left a growing impression in NATO that each time we offer to compromise, Russia just moves the goal posts farther. 

Speaking as a former US diplomat, I understand that Russian concerns are wider than just NATO’s ballistic missile defence.  They’re also worried about the global US missile defence architecture, i.e. US BMD systems deployed in North America and planned deployments in Northeast Asia to defend US allies and US forces against North Korean missile threats.  While I regard that concern as exaggerated (if one looks at the numbers and the geography), the important point is that it must be addressed between Washington and Moscow, not between NATO and Moscow.  We must keep the two issues – and discussion about the two systems – separate.

The latest claim by Russian leaders is that the recent and still-to-be-implemented agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme will eliminate the need for NATO missile defence.  This claim is not only premature, but misinformed.  It misunderstands the purpose of our missile defence system and the evolving nature of the threat.

So let me be clear.  NATO’s missile defence system is not directed against a single country.  It is not a defence against nuclear weapons but against delivery means.  It is a defence against ballistic systems that could carry nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional warheads.  A workable and verifiable agreement that ensured that Iran could not develop nuclear weapons would, of course, be a great step forward.  But the problem of ballistic missile proliferation will remain as pressing as ever.  Of course, should international efforts reduce the threats posed by ballistic missile proliferation, our missile defence would adapt accordingly.

I believe that cooperation on missile defence could still be a real game-changer in NATO-Russia relations.  And I still hope that Russia may yet join us in this endeavour, and in doing so improve NATO’s security and Russia’s security.  But if this opportunity is missed, life will go on.  NATO will continue to develop the capabilities it deems necessary to defend itself against the growing missile threat.

Let me conclude with a few words on NATO’s engagement with third states on missile defence, and specifically about NATO’s engagement with Israel and other Middle Eastern states.

The Alliance remains prepared to engage with third states on a case-by-case basis to maximize transparency, mutual confidence, and system effectiveness.  It is only appropriate that we do so.  Missile defence is a strategic capability.  As such, it could have an impact on our neighbours and partners, in Europe and beyond.

For the moment, NATO and Israel do not have a dialogue on missile defence.  But I believe that such a dialogue, should the Allies and Israel decide to pursue it, would be helpful – for NATO and for Israel.  Israel has unique BMD capabilities and is improving them all the time. Allies could learn from Israeli experiences and there are lessons Israel might learn from NATO’s collective approach.  I am convinced there is also a considerable amount we could learn from each other on threat assessment, command and control arrangements, and the consequences of missile intercept.

NATO has not yet engaged in discussions on missile defence with any of its other Middle Eastern partners.  Like Israel, the Gulf States are cooperating extensively with the United States on a bilateral basis to bolster their missile defence capabilities.  This includes the hosting of Patriot batteries and the acquisition of their own Patriot and THAAD systems.   The growing interest in missile defence is based on a shared concern on the part of the US and its Gulf partners about the destabilizing potential of Iran’s expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles, and the leverage those systems, if not countered, could provide in a crisis. 

As the Gulf Cooperation Council moves to develop closer collaboration in the military sphere, there could be opportunities for closer regional cooperation on missile defence in the Gulf – such as the pooling and sharing of early-warning information, joint training and exercises and, perhaps in the longer term, joint command and control.  As they consider such opportunities, the Gulf states might learn from NATO’s multinational approach to missile defence.  Collaborative efforts among the Gulf countries could enhance the effectiveness of their national missile defence capabilities and thus be of indirect benefit to Israel. 

To conclude, from the NATO perspective, missile defence will clearly be of increasing importance to the Alliance in the coming years, has the potential to strengthen regional stability, and could be a game-changer in our relations with Russia.  Let me thank the INSS, once again, for the opportunity to kick off this timely conference.