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May 24, 2007 | 16:46 GMT

6 mins read

NATO, U.S.: Ballistic Missile Defense and a Display of Unity

NATO is considering building a new ballistic missile defense site in southeastern Europe to protect its exposed flank. The announcement is a huge development in NATO-U.S. relations, which have been tense because the United States has been acting on its own for the past few years. Though not all the details of the system have been decided on or are even known, a move to cover this last Eastern European flank is a clear signal to Russia that Europe is theoretically protected under the U.S.-led NATO umbrella.
NATO is considering building a new ballistic missile defense (BMD) site as an addition to the Greenland-U.K. radar system and the BMD system to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic. The new system will expand Europe's BMD shield, giving it greater relevance and covering short- to long-range threats to Europe's southern flank — Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, the southern Balkans and southern Italy. The idea of such a defense system has been circulating since 2002 but was not seriously considered until 2006. After a year of negotiations, the plan seems to be progressing; NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, on May 21-22 to finalize plans for a June meeting of NATO foreign ministers on the topic in Oslo, Norway. But why is this plan moving forward now — especially since BMD has not yet been proven effective? The plan shows how NATO is thinking about the future; not only is it putting defense systems in place to guard against a threat from the Middle East (specifically, Iran), but NATO also is making Russia very aware there is a BMD system next door. Besides that, this is a very significant step in showing a strategic reintegration of NATO and the United States instead of the United States taking international defense matters into its own hands. From a technical standpoint, a BMD system in southeastern Europe makes perfect sense. Though the United States has satellites designed to detect Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles' launch plumes, and those satellites can also spot missile launches elsewhere — such as in Iran — ground-based radars or specially modified Aegis warships must track the missiles' flight paths to make intercepts possible. Essentially, the sooner the system can see the target, the more time it has to intercept it, and the more accurately that intercept can be plotted. A BMD system in southeastern Europe would expand the European missile shield's field of vision.
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In his press conference with Bush, Scheffer said negotiations for the new BMD site should involve NATO as a whole, unlike U.S. negotiations for the sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. Washington did not wait for Europe to get on board with those talks, negotiating instead with the two European states themselves. While most of Europe is not against BMD per se, it did object to defense negotiations of this scale being conducted bilaterally instead of with NATO's European members as a whole. This leads to another important fact about Europe's BMD shield. The interceptors to be based in Poland do not really protect Poland; they are designed for high-altitude intercepts outside the atmosphere (such as intercepts on a ballistic flight path toward the continental United States). In most cases, BMD systems are pushed beyond national borders and positioned much closer to the launch site; this is why the United States is basing missile interceptors in Alaska and Poland to protect the mainland United States. Anyway, Poland and the Czech Republic are far more interested in the protection a U.S. military base on their soil will bring than in the protection of a BMD shield.
Thus, a NATO BMD system in southeastern Europe becomes even more significant in that it will, theoretically, be in a position to protect Europe. Japan's position is a parallel to the BMD positioning requirements in Europe. Japan and the United States share a goal of protecting against a North Korean missile strike. However, their very different proximity to North Korea requires different foci. Interceptors to protect the United States can be stationed in Alaska; interceptors to protect Japan must be in Japan itself (and that might not even be close enough). NATO's proposed BMD system will be a mutually beneficial arrangement with the United States: The southeastern Europe system will give the United States better coverage for its ground-based midcourse interceptors based in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Europe will have a layered missile shield for its own protection in its southeastern periphery. Plus, Washington holds pretty much all the cards in Western BMD research (even the Israeli Arrow system was a joint project), so NATO will not be doing much without U.S. consent and support in this department. It will be interesting to find out whether the new BMD site was a European initiative or a U.S. initiative. If the Europeans pushed the plan forward, most of the key EU players would have had to agree on it. Furthermore, if the initiative came from the Europeans, it is not only a reaction to the growing Russian and Iranian threats, but also an indication that Europe does not want to be left out of U.S. security plans. (A wave has swept through Europe recently, giving it the most Washington-friendly atmosphere it has had in decades.) If Europe's major powers agreed to this new system, Russia will have almost no chance of playing Europe off the United States on defense issues as it has before. If this is a U.S. initiative — which seems more likely — Russia could have an easier time turning certain European states against the U.S. plan, but it also means Washington has made a very clear choice for a military buildup to counter Russia. The United States already has shown that it is shifting its military sector from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, expanding its capabilities eastward and surrounding certain threats (Russia) with a military presence. This, along with the BMD bases, is a sign Washington is serious about expanding its reach and defensive capabilities. Either way, Russia has made some recent and loud statements about military rejuvenation as it pulls out of various defense treaties, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty and, later on, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But the United States — possibly with Europe on board — has countered by moving in on Russia's western flank with BMD technology which, if it works as it is designed to, will seal off (in a very real way) Russian attempts to threaten the United States and Europe.

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