NATO Missile Defense and the View from the Front Line

By Kaya, Karen | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2013 | Go to article overview

NATO Missile Defense and the View from the Front Line


Kaya, Karen, Joint Force Quarterly


At the November 2010 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting in Lisbon, leaders of 28 nations gathered to chart the Alliance's future course. They identified three essential tasks for the Alliance going forward: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. (1) They adopted a new strategic concept that laid out the Alliance's defense doctrine and vision for the 21st century. This called for a NATO that is more agile, capable, and cost-effective and that is able to defend its members against the full range of threats.

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The new strategic concept is meant to guide the Alliance during the next 10 to 15 years as it restructures its forces according to new threat perceptions. The concept assesses that the greatest threats will come from the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. It also recognizes that proliferation will be most acute in some of the world's most volatile regions. Based on this assessment, the concept foresees a significant increase in NATO's deterrence capability. One of the main tenets of that ambition is to develop a ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability to pursue NATO's core task of collective defense. The Lisbon declaration states, "We will ... develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defense, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance. BMD will be one element of a broader response to the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles." (2)

This is a significant shift. The former emphasis on protecting military units and facilities based on theater missile defense has shifted to the protection of NATO members' territories and populations based on territorial missile defense, signaling a broader, more comprehensive approach to security.

In addition to the Cold Warera threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, NATO faces threats today that were not present during that era including terrorist activities, cyber attacks against communication systems, threats against energy security, and piracy activities along sea trade routes. What also makes these new threats unique is that they no longer originate with rational actors such as the Soviet Union and therefore cannot be easily deterred. They come from irrational actors--governmental or nongovernmental--who use asymmetrical tactics and are willing to die; thus, they are increasingly hard to counter. They come from actors who will not differentiate between military and civilian targets. NATO's incentive to establish missile defense systems and its shift from protecting military bases to protecting populations and full territories is meant to counter these threats.

This represents another major transformation within the Alliance's posture. The focus is shifting from deterrence by mutually assured destruction or extended deterrence to deterrence by denial. (3) The extended deterrence guarantee during the Cold War was meant to deter an attack on U.S. Allies with the message that such an attack would not be left unpunished, and would be met with nuclear weapons if necessary. In deterrence by denial, the message is that the United States and NATO will prevent an attack from reaching its target and, therefore, its political and military goal.

The Missile Defense Shield

President Ronald Reagan initially envisioned a missile defense shield project during the Cold War called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI was to use space technology to protect the United States from a nuclear attack. However, this project caused a crisis between the United States and Soviet Union in the 1980s, and it was eventually abandoned due to cost and to important steps taken in nonproliferation.

During President George W. Bush's term, the project came back on the agenda, and this time protection from Iran and North Korea was the goal. …

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NATO Missile Defense and the View from the Front Line
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