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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 57, May 2001

Preventing Missile Proliferation

A Shield for Europe? The Prospects For A Cooperative Missile Defence

By Mark Smith


European NATO members are currently being courted on two sides regarding cooperative ballistic missile defence. On one side, the United States has embarked on an extensive diplomatic campaign to win over its reluctant and sceptical allies on Washington's pursuit of an NMD system. This campaign has included some indications that the Bush administration is prepared either to share missile defence technology with its allies, or to place the US shield over them, as was the case with the nuclear umbrella. On the other side, Russia has put forward a proposal of its own which, whilst still deficient in some firm details, has a relatively clear technological architecture and strategic rationale. The European response to both approaches has been cool but not dismissive; polite interest has mingled with some familiar doubts. It is timely, then, to examine the current European debate on missile defence: their concerns over missile proliferation and how to respond to it, and their predilection for missile defence of their own national territory.1

Threat and Response: Missile Capabilities and European Reaction

(i) Missile Capabilities

Much of the ballistic missile proliferation that has been the motivation for US NMD lies on the south-eastern periphery of NATO Europe: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya all have missile capabilities capable of targeting at least one NATO member, and projected capabilities that could reach most or all of them.2

Iranian SCUD-B and SCUD-C missiles can currently reach some targets in eastern Turkey, but it is the Shahab programme that currently seems to have replaced the North Korean Taepo-Dong as missile enemy no. 1 in the eyes of the United States. The Shahab-3, a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) with a range of 1,000-1,500km, could reach all of Turkey, some strategic targets in the eastern Mediterranean, and prospective NATO members Romania and Bulgaria. To reach beyond this would require the development of an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). There is some uncertainty about the status of the Shahab-3: its last test was described as a failure by US intelligence, but the most recent assessment judged that a few might have operational status in an emergency.3 Development beyond MRBM range is perhaps proceeding via the Shahab-5, but this is a very shadowy programme and assessments remain highly speculative.

Iraq's missile capabilities are of course heavily circumscribed by UN action, but a recent report by the German intelligence service drew some rather ominous conclusions to go with those of the United States. It is thought that Iraq still has a number of SCUD-based missiles, which give it capabilities against Turkey and the east coast of the Mediterranean. The German report concluded that Iraq could be capable of regaining its pre-Gulf War levels within a maximum of five years, and could target the Federal Republic itself "in the medium to long term".4 The United States assessed that Iraq could develop and deploy ICBMs by 2015.

Syria and Libya are both in possession of SCUD-based missiles. Syrian SCUDs can target Turkey and the east Mediterranean, and there are some unconfirmed reports that Libya has tried to procure some medium-range No-Dong missiles, which would potentially give it capabilities against Italy and much of the northern Mediterranean coast.5

(ii) European Responses

In principle, therefore, there seems to be little reason why European NATO members should not be willing or even eager to follow Washington's lead and begin planning a BMD of their own. They are either already vulnerable to missile attack, or will become so some time before a missile attack on the continental United States is an extant possibility. This analysis, however, only holds true if the assessment of vulnerability is mostly or wholly based on capabilities, and it is here that the differences between the United States and its allies are most plain.

The most striking aspect of the missile defence debate, when comparing European and US policies, is the fact that ballistic missile proliferation has produced such different responses. In Europe, neither the proximity to states of concern, nor the close links with US strategic policy, nor the experience of SCUD attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War have been sufficient to generate a European constituency in favour of BMD. This is principally due to a mismatch in how threats are assessed, and in particular a greater European emphasis on hostile intent as the definitive element. This has continued to be the case even over the last two years, when WMD and proliferation have moved up the defence policy agenda in European NATO members. Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK have all published official reports indicating growing concern about the issue, although none of them advocated a European BMD as a response.6

Thus European concerns about national missile defence concentrate mostly on the US plans: the possibility of a similar defence of their own does not appear to figure significantly in their defence policy, if at all. There appears to be an overwhelming preference for deterrence as the most effective tool for dealing with the sort of strategic threats envisaged by the 1999 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). A recent report by the North Atlantic Assembly appeared to speak for most European states in arguing that "it is not clear why deterrence, which proved so effective at deterring Soviet attack, is not applicable to lesser powers whose own capability to strike the United States is in doubt and who would not survive a retaliatory attack by the United States".7

This preference for deterrence is partly due to strategic cultural factors, but also has a practical basis. If US strategy were to move from a posture of deterrence tempered by arms control towards a mixed deterrence-defence posture in which arms control has an uncertain role, this is potentially very bad news for NWS with small nuclear arsenals, such as Britain and France. In particular, a modified or collapsed ABM Treaty will potentially mean proliferation of defensive systems, which may in turn compel Britain and France to reconsider the viability of their deterrent capabilities, and thereby the political currency that is generated by them. They, along with the other European NATO members, are therefore highly reluctant to muddy the waters of existing deterrent relationships by attempting to incorporate missile defences.

However, this is not to say that European states have no interest in missile defences; that would be misleading. Their interest lies in the area of theatre missile defence (TMD). The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a collaborative programme involving the United States, Germany and Italy, has been developing since 1994, and NATO's own interest was boosted by the adoption of the Defence Capabilities Initiative (DCI) two years ago. The DCI was driven by the perception of a transatlantic 'capabilities gap', and a consequent need to develop the capabilities of the allies. This also led to the NATO TMD Feasibility Study. This month, the Alliance is scheduled to appoint an industrial consortium to carry out the study, which will define the technical requirements for missile defence of Allied forces. In contrast to NMD, this form of missile defence enjoys near-universal support within NATO, and there are already indications that the new Rapid Reaction Force is accelerating European interest in TMD.8

NATO has already carried out some experimental exercises, simulating attack by SCUD and Al-Hussein missiles, to assess some basic TMD command and control issues.9 The current requirement of a European TMD system is for lower and upper tier defences which can intercept missiles with ranges of up to 3,500km. Thus it will utilise technology beginning with Patriot-style missiles up to something akin to the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, all of which are mobile and theatre-based (although THAAD has, controversially, been attributed some limited anti-ICBM capability).10 The envisaged system, then, is a limited-capability, mobile defence with little actual or potential capability against strategic forces, posing no threat to strategic stability between the P5. Moreover, the technology involved could easily be transferred without abrogating the ABM Treaty.11

The interest in TMD (and the apparently contradictory opposition to NMD) is again a consequence of a European approach to the use of force. With the exception of Turkey, European relations with 'states of concern' are issue-driven - the Gulf War for example - and thus are conducted through ad hoc 'coalitions of the willing'. The general situation is not, in other words, like the Cold War, in which the shape and location of a likely conflict were relatively clear, but rather one requiring more flexibility, in which the theatres are not fixed, and, more significantly, where the ad hoc nature of coalitions mitigates in favour of commonality of strategic posture.

(iii) Missile Defence Policy in NATO Europe

In light of the above, Europeans have elaborated three positions on missile defences. The first is that some limited fire-break missile defence for deployed forces and point defence for 'missile-dangerous' areas is going to be a necessity, but that it must be deployed in such a way as to leave strategic stability between the P5 untouched: missile defence is envisaged primarily, in fact almost solely, in terms of useable military force, not unusable nuclear deterrent forces. The second has been a general reluctance to grasp the NMD nettle: "don't wake us up".12 One French analyst has noted that "Until NMD becomes a reality, Europeans not specialized in defense matters are not going to focus on it".13 The third is a desire not to break with the United States on strategic posture. Despite the "frank discussions" that were reportedly taking place on the recent tour of Europe by US officials, none of the European states want a degradation of the transatlantic link. A paradox of European NMD rhetoric is that their public opposition was at its loudest when they were preaching to the converted in the Clinton administration (which was never fully convinced on NMD), and at its most muted when the Bush administration made it plain that it was fully committed on NMD deployment. Germany and the UK have both made sympathetic noises regarding Bush's plans, echoed by some NATO sources.14 German, Italian, Turkish and Greek leaders have also expressed, if not support, then an open mind.15

This paradox suggests that the allies will accommodate themselves as best they can with Washington, and that US NMD deployment may, for better or worse, stimulate interest in Euro-NMD beyond the theatre of war. NMD is likely to produce a significant shift in US posture and thereby in its strategy. As some of Washington's closest allies, periodically involved in US force projection (i.e. the Gulf War), European NATO members may well feel they have an interest in coordinating their own posture with that of the United States. At the 'worst-case' end of scenarios, NMD may produce a threat to European states of the kind they currently perceive to be minimal. If a 'state of concern' really did intend to target a long-range missile at the United States, it would have a strictly limited number of responses to NMD deployment. Among them would be to simply shift its missile strategy to concentrate on other targets, possibly in Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Prospects for Co-operation

It can reasonably be assumed that European deliberations on missile defence beyond the sub-strategic TMD level will be influenced by factors only indirectly related to an actual threat. These factors can be lined up as pros and cons, and are financial, strategic and political in nature.

Incentives and Disincentives: Financial, Strategic, Political

As a NATO official commented, "the challenge for Europeans will be to turn the unappetising inevitability of missile defence into an appetising opportunity".16 Most appetising of all, perhaps, is the possibility of fringe benefits in industrial co-operation. This is a possibility in the case of US NMD, and is likely to be a prerequisite in the event of a Euro-NMD. The reportedly "feverish bidding" by industrial groups for the two contracts to carry out NATO's TMD Feasibility Study is evidence of the lucrative potential of BMD research.17 It appears that the Janus consortium, a group headed by the US firm Lockheed-Martin, but including British Aerospace, is about to land one of the contracts, with the other going to the Science Applications International Corporation in the United States.18 The contracts, for what is described as "a multivariable homework assignment", are worth $13.5 million each, for two 18-month studies. This represents the flip-side of the gargantuan price tag of missile defences: the huge outgoings for governments represent corresponding incomings for industry.

Strategic incentives for cooperative missile defence centre around the fact that, with the exception of Turkey, all missile threats to European NATO members are a consequence of power projection, usually in cooperation with the United States. If the states involved want such projection and cooperation to continue, it is likely they will eventually find TMD, and possibly more extensive missile defences, necessary. This may be especially true if the United States rides roughshod over the sensibilities of Russia, which may result in Russian policies on arms control and non-proliferation (already regarded as suspect in some quarters) generating alarm, and increasing the sense of threat of conflict, in Europe.

In short, the European interest in maintaining a co-ordinated strategic posture with the United States, and in the development of a force projection capability of its own, both suggest a new interest in missile defences. The current European preference is clearly for a sub-strategic missile defence with few real implications for nuclear stability between the P5. If Russia and the United States do go down the missile defence road, Europe will have an interest in ensuring that this does not run counter to their own priorities. This will mean engagement, and such a policy may well entail cooperative BMD. There are some tentative suggestions that this may be possible. The United States is very clearly trying to win Russia over on NMD and the ABM Treaty, and there have been suggestions that exchange of technology, including US purchase of Russian S-300s of the type deployed in Cyprus, may be possible.19

Russia, of course, has a missile defence agenda of its own, one strikingly close to the thinking of European NATO members. Like them, Russia regards US threat assessment as, at best, overblown, although this is precisely why Russia also nurses lingering suspicions that the 'rogue state' defence is the thin end of a very long wedge. Like the Europeans, Russia favours sub-strategic defence using mobile architecture and based upon consultative deployment, both of which help to avoid any implication that the defence is directed at any particular enemy.20 Whilst the technology proposed by Russia is less to Washington's taste than the Europeans, the cooperative approach advocated in the recent proposal is something that can be fostered by Europe.

The disincentives, like the incentives, are more bound up with how to pursue Euro-NMD than whether to pursue it at all.21 Financially, the experience of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) Memorandum of Understanding of the 1980s, when promises of technology-sharing failed to materialise, is likely to be a factor.22 More recently, the 'black-boxing' of Patriot technology by the United States caused serious problems for the MEADS programme.23 That said, European companies are reportedly already attempting to become partners in US NMD research under the Bush administration.

Political and strategic disincentives again focus on how US NMD is pursued, and its effects on Russia. An overly confrontational, unilateral deployment of NMD by the United States may produce some highly undesirable consequences in terms of Russian policy on arms control and non-proliferation, and Europeans might find themselves faced with the choice of either retreating behind the US shield or attempting to distance themselves from it. This is a choice they would undoubtedly prefer to avoid, and whilst they are unlikely to make a complete break with the United States, they also may not follow Washington all the way down an adversarial path: there are new dynamics in European security, such as the UK-France St. Malo process, which offer other options.


To summarise, European NATO members are not going to pursue cooperative missile defence with Russia without the blessing and preferably active participation of the United States, but nonetheless the Russian proposal, with all its lack of hard detail and questionable political rationale, is clearly calculated to appeal to European BMD sensibilities, as well as possessing clear roots in Russian ones. It contains the elements of missile defence that the Europeans find most appealing, whilst firmly discounting those they are most alarmed by. It is tightly linked to useable military force, and has no potential to degrade ICBM-range arsenals. This is, of course, precisely why the United States will find the scheme useless for anything beyond TMD. The problem is that the one thing that European states and Russia wish to avoid in a missile defence - anti-ICBM capability - is also the one thing the United States must have, since it is only vulnerable to ICBM-range missiles.

This also suggests that the US offer to extend a missile defence to Europe will only go so far in placating allied concerns over Washington's plans. Although they have given some ground over revising the ABM Treaty - the recent North Atlantic Council communiqué failed to follow type and describe the Treaty as "a cornerstone of strategic stability" - deep concern remains.24

However, there is an overlap in strategic and political missile defence priorities between Russia and the United States. There is also an apparent US willingness to thrash out some workable agreement with Russia; despite rhetoric, both sides would almost certainly prefer an acceptably-amended ABM Treaty to an abrogated one. It light of this, there may be an opportunity for European states to pursue their three key goals over missile defence. To repeat, these are to construct a mobile, upper and lower tier TMD, not to jeopardise the integrity of their small nuclear forces, and to maintain strategic stability between the United States and Russia. They may very easily find themselves caught in the middle of a rapidly deteriorating US-Russian relationship, with everything that may imply for international security. They may, however, also find that that middle position offers them the chance to prevent that deterioration.

Notes and References

1. For more on this, see Ian Kenyon, Mike Rance, John Simpson and Mark Smith, The Prospects for a European Ballistic Missile Defence, Southampton Papers in International Policy No. 4, Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton (June 2001). Also Mark Smith, 'European Perspectives on Ballistic Missile Proliferation and Missile Defences', in Missile Proliferation and Defences: Problems and Prospects, Occasional Paper No.7, Special Joint Series on Missile Issues, Monterey Institute of International Studies/Mountbatten Centre for International Studies (June 2001).

2. Proliferation: Threat and Response (US Department of Defense, January 2001).

3. Andrew Koch, 'Third Iranian Shahab test 'a fizzle'', Jane's Intelligence Review, November 2000, p. 5; Proliferation: Threat and Response (US Department of Defense, January 2001); The Military Balance 1999-2000 (London: IISS, 2000), p. 120.

4. Bernd Kubbig, 'Regional Perspectives: Europe' in International Perspectives on Missile Proliferation and Defenses, Occasional Paper No.5, Special Joint Series on Missile Issues, Monterey Institute of International Studies/Mountbatten Centre for International Studies (March 2001).

5. World Missile Chart, Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project, MTCR Draft Code of Conduct; Proliferation: Threat and Response (US Department of Defense, January 2001).

6. Eighth Report of Parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Weapons of Mass Destruction, July 25, 2000; Bernd Kubbig, 'Regional Perspectives: Europe', in International Perspectives on Missile Proliferation and Defenses (Special Joint Series on Missile Issues, Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton), March 2001; Camille Grand, 'Missile Defense: The View From the Other Side of the Atlantic', in Arms Control Today, September 2001; Defensienota 2000, the Dutch statement, is mentioned in 'Theatre Missile Defence: First Steps Towards Global Misile Defence', Working Group Eurobomb, PENN-NL.

7. North Atlantic Assembly Political Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations, NMD and Implications for the Alliance, p. 10.

8. Luke Hill, 'TMD: NATO Starts the Countdown', in Jane's Defence Weekly, January 3, 2001; 'Europeans Receptive to a Broad Strategy', International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2001.

9. 'Optic Windmill Tests US, Dutch, German NMD Skills', Jane's Defence Weekly, March 12, 1997.

10. Lisbeth Gronlund, George Lewis, Theodore Postol and David Wright, 'Highly Capable Theater Ballistic Missile Defenses and the ABMT', Arms Control Today 24 (3). THAAD can intercept ICBMs at 40-80km altitude, when all countermeasures will have burned away in re-entry, but would need a much faster flying speed. National Missile Defense: Policy Issues and Technological Capabilities, IFPA Report, July 2000, p. 3:6.

11. The operative part of the Treaty here is Article 9, which bans the transfer of "ABM systems", with ABM being defined as strategic missile defence.

12. Stephen Cambone et al, European Views of National Missile Defense, Atlantic Council of the United States, September 2000, p. 18.

13. Cited in Camille Grand's excellent article 'Missile Defense: The View From the Other Side of the Atlantic', in Arms Control Today, September 2001, p. 12.

14. 'Europeans Receptive to a Broad Strategy', International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2001.

15. 'German Officials Question US on Missile Defense', New York Times, May 10, 2001; 'Athens to Examine Missile Shield Plan', Washington Times, May 23, 2001; 'Turkey Sees Shelter in NMD', Defense News, June 10, 2001; http://www.cdi.org/hotspots/issuebrief/ch8/index.html#update.

16. 'Europeans Receptive to a Broad Strategy', International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2001.

17. Luke Hill, 'TMD: NATO Starts the Countdown', in Jane's Defence Weekly, January 3, 2001.

18. 'NATO Deal Launches BAE Missile Hopes', Observer, May 27, 2001. 'US Puts its Missile Plan on Fast Track', Guardian, June 9, 2001.

19. New York Times, May 29, 2001.

20. Nikolai Sokov, 'Russian Missile Defense for Europe: The February 20 Proposal is More Serious Than it Seems', Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/reports/sokrmd.htm.

21. For an analysis of the factors which might lead European states to pursue a continental BMD, see Ian Kenyon, Mike Rance, John Simpson and Mark Smith, The Prospects for a European Ballistic Missile Defence, Southampton Papers in International Policy No. 4, Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton (June 2001).

22. Mark Smith, 'European Perspectives on Ballistic Missile Proliferation and Missile Defences', in Missile Proliferation and Defences: Problems and Prospects, Occasional Paper No.7, Special Joint Series on Missile Issues, Monterey Institute of International Studies/Mountbatten Centre for International Studies (June 2001).

23. Bernd Kubbig, 'Regional Perspectives: Europe', in International Perspectives on Missile Proliferation and Defenses (Special Joint Series on Missile Issues, Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton), March 2001.

24. 'NATO Drops its Support of ABM Pact', Washington Times, May 30, 2001.

Dr. Mark Smith is a Research Fellow at the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics, University of Southampton, UK.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.