The Evolution of Ballistic Missile Defense in Central Europe

10 MINS READAug 3, 2010 | 19:35 GMT
A member of the Czech Republic's Communist party protests the U.S. BMD plan in 2007
A member of the Czech Republic's Communist party protests the U.S. BMD plan in 2007
Slovakia and the Czech Republic have joined the list of Central European countries willing to be part of a proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe. The number of countries willing to participate in a U.S. BMD proposal has gradually increased to six since the September 2009 scrapping of a Bush-era proposal for BMD in Central Europe. So far, Russia has not reacted angrily to this incremental increase in the scope of U.S. BMD plans, but that is likely a temporary situation.
Slovakia and the Czech Republic have indicated a willingness to be part of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe, government officials from both countries announced July 30 and 31. Though the current discussion is over small, not particularly complex monitoring facilities, it is a reminder that BMD in Europe is about far more than defending against ballistic missiles. While the proposed Czech role would be limited to an early warning system significantly smaller than the previously negotiated X-Band radar facility, Prague's — and perhaps Bratislava's — participation expands the roster of countries now either slated to participate or expressing a desire to participate in U.S. BMD plans. Since U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement in September 2009 that the United States has "scrapped" Bush-era BMD plans to have been based in Poland and the Czech Republic alone, his administration has actually expanded the project to potentially include six countries: Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The expansion has taken place via incremental steps in order to minimize backlash in the proposed host countries and from Moscow.

BMD Before September 2009

The original, Bush-era BMD system aimed to place 10 Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors in Poland and an X-Band radar facility in the Czech Republic. A U.S.-operated radar facility in Israel set up in 2008 outside of the European BMD plan was also thought of as supporting the system. At that time, the GMD system — although plagued by a troubled testing history — was deemed the only reasonably mature system available to protect the United States from Iran's emergent crude inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. A system to counter a similar threat from North Korea already had been deployed in Alaska and California. The original BMD plan was scrapped for two reasons. First, in the official reason cited by the White House, incoming Obama administration officials did not deem the ICBM threat from Iran as quite so pressing an issue. This allowed Washington to shift to a more "phased" approach to BMD. Second, and more central to the decision, the new administration looked to Russia to change the balance of power in the Middle East. The Obama administration hoped that the decision to scrap the Bush-era BMD system would motivate Moscow to join Washington in October 2009 at the U.N. Security Council in renewing the push to use U.N. sanctions to induce Iran to end its nuclear ambitions. Moscow's role in allowing U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan via Russian territory — and that of its client states like Kyrgyzstan — gave Moscow another lever on a crucial policy matter for an Obama administration looking to shift the U.S. focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Plans for 10 interceptors in Poland and the X-Band radar facility in the Czech Republic were subsequently scrapped. For Warsaw and Prague, BMD was never about a threat from Iran — a relative non-issue for both countries — nor even about direct military defense against Russia. Ten GMD interceptors would be too few to counter a nuclear or conventional threat from Russia. Instead, the installations were a sign of the U.S. commitment to the security of both countries, as they would come with U.S. boots on the ground — military personnel whose security would be inexorably linked to that of Warsaw and Prague. The Obama administration, however, calculated that scrapping the Bush plan would not mean abandoning security guarantees to Poland and the Czech Republic. This was because a revamped and subtler plan could accomplish the same military and political goals, while avoiding the most direct Russian criticism by not announcing all elements of the plan immediately. This would avoid forcing a confrontation over an issue to which Russia had vocally objected for years.

BMD Evolution After September 2009

The September cancellation shifted the focus from the GMD interceptors to more operationally mature technologies like the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) already deployed on U.S. BMD-capable Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers, systems that already have had some operational success. The shift was in line with broader shifts in concepts and priorities underlying American BMD efforts that had been implemented earlier in the year by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The search for a more adaptable, flexible approach underpinned these shifts. The first phase of this involved simply deploying SM-3 armed warships as appropriate to the Mediterranean, Black and/or North seas, thereby bypassing any territorial complaint Moscow might raise. Incidentally, the SM-3s were also more appropriate for defending portions of European territory, also making it possible to maintain the argument to U.S. allies — and U.S. domestic constituencies — that BMD, and key European allies, were not being abandoned. From the outset of the shift, the administration left the possibility that the political aspects of the BMD system — U.S. security commitments to specific Central European states — remained on the table. This was accomplished by announcing that a ground-based version of the SM-3 under development could be stationed in several unnamed locations in Europe along with mobile X-Band radar batteries. It also tried to allay Polish fears of abandonment — historically a highly sensitive issue for Warsaw — by immediately offering the deployment of a Patriot battery in Poland (finalized in May 2010, although the battery is for training purposes only and is not yet on permanent deployment). Since September 2009, Washington gradually has expanded planned deployments of ground-based SM-3 interceptors to a number of Central European countries not on the original list of BMD participants. Romania announced plans to participate in February and Bulgaria followed suit in April. Romania would have ground-based SM-3 interceptors placed by 2015, while Bulgaria is being considered for an X-Band radar facility like the one originally planned for the Czech Republic. Both could also serve as ports of call for Aegis BMD-capable ships patrolling the Black Sea, a convenient location for intercepting missile threats emanating from the Middle East. Poland is also set to receive SM-3 interceptors by 2018. For the Czech Republic, the cancellation of plans for the X-Band radar facility originally signed in June 2008 was not as controversial as the announcement was for Poland. The government of Mirek Topolanek had been forced to resign in March 2009 due to the combined effects of the economic crisis and lack of popular support for the planned U.S. radar base. The interim government was content to leave the issue unaddressed, and the announcement from Washington in September that the radar base was scrapped was actually welcomed in Prague. It allowed the interim government to concentrate on the economic crisis. The return of Topolanek's Civic Democratic Party to power following May elections — albeit with new leadership under Prime Minister Petr Necas — meant that Washington could reconsider Czech participation. But instead of a major X-Band radar facility, the United States would fund a relatively minor early warning center with $2 million for two years (by comparison, an X-Band radar installation costs between $150 million to $300 million). According to a July 31 statement by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, the center would be fully Czech-run once training with U.S. personnel was completed. The revamped Czech role in the BMD system was most likely purposely minimal so as not to elicit the same kind of popular backlash the original X-Band radar facility created. (Support in the Czech Republic for the original radar base has hovered around 30 percent.) That Washington and Prague are proceeding indicates that Washington wants to maintain a security commitment to the Czech Republic, even if public opinion and politics dictate that such a commitment remain limited at the moment. The United States and the current Czech government are therefore limiting their cooperation to small, less controversial steps, perhaps in hopes that greater cooperation becomes more palatable in the future. On the heels of the Czech statement about renewed interest in BMD, Slovakia also has expressed interest. New Slovak Foreign Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has indicated that if invited by the United States, Bratislava also would consider participation in BMD. June elections in Slovakia saw a new center-right coalition take power which is far more amenable to participation in the BMD system than the government of former Prime Minister Robert Fico. This has created conditions for Washington to extend its security guarantees to Bratislava as well.

Implications of European BMD Evolution

Bulgaria and Slovakia are particularly interesting additions to the BMD plans. Both countries traditionally have had very strong relations with Moscow — even during and after their NATO/EU accession processes — Bulgaria because it is surrounded by regional powers it historically has had to balance with outside help and Slovakia because it houses important Soviet-era energy infrastructure. This infrastructure uses the Morava-Danube gap to transport Russian natural gas to Austria and from there to the rest of Western Europe. Participation in the BMD system, no matter how limited, would be the second concrete step after joining NATO to delineate which alliance Sofia and Bratislava belong to. It would signal to Russia that two of the Central European countries most sympathetic to Moscow were being offered real U.S. security partnerships. Thus, the incremental U.S. steps have resulted in far more participants, albeit at arguably lower commitment levels (for now), in U.S. BMD plans. Thus far, Moscow has only responded rhetorically, asking both Bulgaria and Romania to explain their participation in the BMD system, and has not responded at all to possible Czech and Slovak participation. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did not raise the subject during his recent trip to the United States, instead concentrating on attracting investment and U.S. technological know-how to aid ongoing Russian modernization efforts. In fact, Moscow has both supported U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran and has continued to play a constructive role on U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, indicating that U.S. expansion of the BMD system to more countries has not yet irritated it. This quiescence, however, is a product of the temporary arrangement whereby Russia requires Western investments and know-how and the U.S. requires Russian help on Iran and Afghanistan. Therefore this temporary alignment of interests is likely to eventually give way to the traditional confrontational relationship between the two countries. Russia also wants to consolidate its sphere of influence firmly before tackling U.S. encroachment in Central Europe. As the BMD system develops, Russia will take note of the expanding U.S. influence in Central Europe. A temporary detente motivated by a transitory focus on the Middle East and investments by the United States and Russia, respectively, could shift once those interests change. And this would leave countries like Slovakia and Bulgaria exposed when Moscow and Washington refocus on security matters in Central Europe.

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