reflections

Ballistic Missile Defense and Security Guarantees in Central Europe

5 MINS READSep 2, 2011 | 03:47 GMT
Romanian President Traian Basescu announced Thursday that he plans to sign an agreement with the United States committing Washington to deploy ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors and American troops on Romanian soil. Basescu laid out both the number of U.S troops who would be deployed – 200 – and the specific interceptor — the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (SM3). A land-based launcher for this successful sea-based interceptor is still in development, and while the newest version of the SM3 failed in its first test Thursday, the sea-based Aegis SM3 system has proven the most capable of U.S. BMD systems. For Warsaw and Prague, the BMD installations have nothing at all to do with ballistic missiles and everything to do with the American security guarantee. The Romanian president's announcement cements Romania's segment of the U.S. "European phased adaptive approach" — Washington's replacement for the previous BMD scheme pursued under the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush. The previous plan envisioned a version of the interceptors already operational in Alaska and California (though with a questionable track record) and their concrete silos in Poland, while an X-band radar installation would have been placed in the Czech Republic. Warsaw and especially Prague had high hopes for the Bush-era plan and still remain frustrated with its 2009 cancellation. Their hopes had little to do with the threat of ballistic missiles — and certainly nothing to do with the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles that Washington used to justify the system in the first place. Tehran and its crude stockpile of missiles could not be farther from Central European minds. What countries like Poland and the Czech Republic seek is a long-term U.S. military personnel presence, and Washington's consequent imperative to defend them. For Warsaw and Prague, in other words, the BMD installations have nothing at all to do with ballistic missiles and everything to do with the American security guarantee. The withdrawal of the previous scheme, under pressure from a resurgent Russia, was precisely what the Central Europeans feared and why they desired fixed American military installations. Washington's broken commitment has already cost it a measure of credibility, in terms of its allies' perceptions, in the durability of the American security guarantee. This U.S. credibility question has played no small part in the emergence of the proposal for a Visegrad battlegroup independent of NATO and the United States. The perception of the U.S. security guarantee is precisely what remains at stake with this new phased adaptive approach. However, it is not clear that all parties view the approach in the same way. If the credibility of the American security guarantee is in question, it is partly because of the lessons Washington took from the failure to place fixed installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. The United States learned that flexibility and redundancy are desirable in any deal. With the immense political pressure from the Kremlin on potential host countries and populations, as well as on more pressing American interests elsewhere in the world, expanding the range of options is certainly preferable. Consequently, while the United States has laid out a coherent scheme for the phased adaptive approach, improvements in weapons technology have allowed the inclusion of more mobile and dispersed components. Washington has also created a degree of ambiguity by waiting to formally sign specific deals. This equivocation strengthens the plans to deploy a viable BMD system in Europe to defend the continental United States against an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (a weapon that does not yet exist). However, the consequence is a dimmed perception of American reliability among allies from Estonia to Romania, who are desperately seeking a firm, unambiguous demonstration of America's commitment. To these allies, a U.S. demonstration of support is most important not when it is politically convenient, but when it is politically difficult. This predicament is not lost on Russia. Both Moscow and Beijing have been refining their positions in order to make firm, unambiguous demonstrations of American commitment as politically inconvenient and difficult as possible. The issue was discussed Wednesday between Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and the U.S. Defense attache in Moscow. For Moscow, the problem of BMD is twofold. Details aside, Washington is flirting with the Central Europeans who, unlike their Western brethren, are highly concerned about Russia's military capabilities. A significantly more aggressive U.S. BMD stance would greatly challenge Moscow. Longer-term, as Russia's population declines, it will come to rely increasingly on its nuclear arsenal to guarantee its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity. Therefore, no matter what assurances Moscow gleans from Washington concerning the current European scheme, the inexorable improvement in American BMD technology will increasingly challenge those promises.

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