NATO Missile Defense: what is it, and why is it so controversial?

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Missile defense systems have always been highly controversial, because they inherently tip the balance of power. From the first interception systems in the 1960s, to the ambitious American Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, the ability to shoot down incoming nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) threatened to upset the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. With the Cold War over (at the very least in the ideological sense of capitalism versus communism), the long-delayed NATO missile defense system is being put into force across Europe. But what is it for, and why is it so controversial?

A brief history of missile defense

Concepts to destroy ICBMs have been around almost as long as the missiles themselves. During the 1950s and 1960s, the US and USSR gradually moved their nuclear arsenals away from bombers and toward ICBMs, which could reach their targets within a matter of minutes, and thus gave little time for interception. Gradually, anti-aircraft weapons – such as the US Nike Missile System – were phased out as resources were needed to develop, and possibly defend, against ICBMs. It was quickly established that any nuclear exchange in the Cold War would take place primarily through missiles rather than aircraft; as such, potentially the world’s most devastating war could have claimed millions of victims in under 10 minutes.

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Given that anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) could potentially unsettle the balance of Mutually Assured Destruction, and therefore bring the world closer to nuclear war, The US and the USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, limiting each side to a total of 200 ABMs each. This treaty was a historic deal between two foes, although ABMs were quickly rendered less effective. ICBMs were developed with multiple warheads, meaning after launch an ICBM would split into up to 10 missiles – overwhelming any ground based defense.

Almost 10 years later, Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a new program that sought to place ABM technology with space-based defenses. Orbit seemed like a good place for anti-missile problems, being out of reach and having much quicker reaction times. This troubled the Soviets, who again saw an upset in the MAD balance. But many of these aspiring technologies never reached the launchpad.

A Cold War concluded, a new era for NATO

As the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the SDI turned into the Missile Defense Agency, and the risk of nuclear exchange between what became the Russian Federation and US greatly reduced. At the same time, former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states were admitted to NATO in the late 1990s. In 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, ostensibly in response to the 9/11 attacks, paving the way for a new NATO missile defense shield that aims to include the whole of NATO.

Missile Defense Aegis
A part of the NATO Missile Defense System, the sea-based AEGIS system

Initially, the NATO missile defense system was designed to protect from attacks originating in the Middle East. The US began studies and partnerships with Poland and the Czech Republic over stationing anti-ballistic missiles in both countries, to the almost immediate protest of Russia. Even though the Cold War was over, the Russians were still suspicious of American power – and more so as NATO had expanded into former Soviet bloc countries. The military alliance was creeping toward Russia’s doorstep. By 2007, several of these countries had even joined the European Union, further distancing themselves from Russia. But The US was willing to negotiate; restating that the system was purely defending against an attack from the Middle East. The system was modified several times, and its deployment delayed.

A change of course – again

Eventually, the US decided to abandon full plans to have anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic – in what some saw as bowing to Russian pressure.

Nevertheless, NATO has been hard at work assembling an alternative to the original plan. Rolling out in phases, a military base in Deveselu, Romania, is set to host interceptor anti-ballistic missiles, and is expected to go online in April 2016. A second ground-based site hosting SM-3 missile interceptors is expected to be complete in Poland in 2018, and be fully operational by 2020. Whilst not as comprehensive as the original plan under Bush, the new missile system will provide coverage as NATO originally intended.

A weak missile shield is better than none

NATO has repeatedly stressed that it is simply combining various anti-ballistic missile systems into one cohesive unit in order to better provide a response. When Russia objected to the original missile shield plan, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that a handful of ABMs wouldn’t make a dent against Russia’s thousands of nuclear-tipped warheads. Indeed, the NATO missile defense system is aimed squarely against one, or a handful, of missiles originating from a rogue state. A more centralised missile defense system makes sense in this regard, and with NATO now vastly larger than it was during the Cold War, it has a duty to provide protection for all its members. Constructing facilities in Eastern Europe provides protection for the entire NATO alliance not just because it is geographically closer to current perceived threats, but also because it has member states there now. Russia should have little to fear from a missile defense system that could only hope to shoot down a handful of its missiles if the unthinkable were to unfold.

Image credit: Department of Defense


  1. I don’t understand, of course countries want to defend and they all do. As long as they are not using nuclear, then what’s the problem?