NATO's Decision on Missile Defense
April 4, 2008
NATO's decision to move forward on missile defense in Europe is a mixed bag at best. It seems clear that missile defenses can work to some degree. No one has doubted that today's theater missile defense systems work, at least as point defenses. The PAC 3 and Standard II are already deployed. The recent hit-to-kill tests have also provided proof of principle for limited ICBM intercepts.
The key issues are how just how effective wide area theater and ICBM defenses can be against a real world force. This can only be determined by how well a given real-world, deployed missile defense force can succeed in terms of overall kills and exchange ratios against both small and large attacks by a specific threat force, and how well countermeasures can do in degrading the percentage of intercepts. This latter technological issue, however, applies to Russian levels of technology. NATO has essentially focused on Iran as the threat, and Iran faces far greater problems in making its warheads capable of countering intercept technology than Russia.
NATO has not, however, agreed to deploy a proven fully developed force. It has instead agreed to deploy unproven systems which do not yet have the boosters, their final generation of guidance technology, and the support of space-based systems like SIBIRs that will be part of the mature system. The US system deployed under Bush has a wide range of key developmental components. It is unclear how soon these will be completed, and how effective the end result will be.
Why bet on the system now, particularly when a decision irritates the Russians? Because the Administration gave this priority over NATO expansion, it was the easier choice. NATO Ministers have to know that Russian complaints over missile defenses are far less serious than Russian fears of NATO expansion. The proposed "NATO" system is far too small and limited in capability to affect the Russian missile force. Russia's concerns over the near abroad, however, are very real indeed, and US political clout is limited by the fact that France and Germany see the cost of supporting the US as far higher in this case.
The irony behind the NATO decision is that if the US intelligence community is right, Iran won't complete a nuclear armed missile until around 2015 -- if it pushes ahead and actually builds and deploys a nuclear armed force. This means NATO is acting to deal with a threat that will materialize some seven years in the future, by which time many of the developmental issues in the US system will be resolved by a new Administration -- successfully or unsuccessfully.
Just how ironic all of this is depends on your sense of humor. Russia and Mr. Putin may not find it all that amusing.