What are positive effects of ballistic missiles

Missile defense on NATO's agenda
To the view: Missile defense systems could prevent opponents from acquiring ballistic missiles. (© AFSOUTH)
In the run-up to the summit in Riga, David S. Yost analyzes the background to the NATO debate on missile defense.
The deployment of missile defense systems is now one of the first measures taken when a NATO member is threatened during a crisis. For example, in 1990-1991 and 2003, the alliance sent anti-patriot missiles to Turkey during the Iraq conflict. In addition, NATO can look back on successful cooperation in the field of missile defense in protecting its deployed troops and is working to further improve this capability. In March 2005, the North Atlantic Council launched the ALTBMD (Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense) program. Through this program, the various systems of tactical missile defense are connected to a complete protection network for our troops in the respective mission, whereby the first stage of operational readiness is to be achieved in 2010.

NATO may now be on the verge of going beyond mere troop protection with its missile defense capabilities. When the defense ministers of the NATO countries met in June 2006, they noted the completion of the missile defense feasibility study commissioned by the Alliance at the 2002 Prague Summit with the aim of exploring the possibilities for the protection of the territory, of the armed forces and metropolitan areas of the Allies.

The question of the technical feasibility of such defense systems against ballistic missiles has now receded into the background compared to the politico-military aspects, which are still being discussed. In the context of this debate, the view is growing that missile defense systems for the "entire spectrum", i.e. against missiles of any range, could serve the security interests of the Alliance. Despite efforts to prevent and curb the proliferation of missiles, the number of ballistic missiles outside NATO territory (as well as their range and level of development) is steadily increasing, and these missiles could also be armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In addition, the problems of terrorism on the one hand and attack missiles on the other could lead to overlapping challenges, as demonstrated by Hezbollah's connections to Syria and Iran using short-range systems.

The threat assessment - predicting the need for missile defense systems - is of course not an exact science. How serious (and how immediately threatening) is the danger of long-range ballistic missile deployment in relation to the cost of purchasing anti-missile systems and in relation to pursuing other defense priorities? The general threat analysis by the governments of NATO countries does not agree on all points with the assessment of the American government, especially not with regard to the timeframe in which the development of foreign missile capabilities will be completed. However, it is widely recognized that the availability of funds from supplies from foreign suppliers such as North Korea could change rapidly and that a state's attitude can change overnight if there is a change of government. Even with poor target accuracy and uncertain technical reliability, long-range missiles equipped with WMDs could also pose a significant threat to NATO countries.

Missile defense systems to protect the cities and territories of NATO countries could in principle strengthen the deterrent potential, enable the Alliance to overcome crises with greater steadfastness and solidarity and (in some cases perhaps) even prevent opponents from acquiring ballistic missiles with which one can threaten the states of the allies. Missile defense systems could serve as a deterrent, as an enemy would face the risk of defeat if attacked and the possibility of a retaliatory strike by NATO. If the NATO states had defense systems against such ballistic missiles, they could more easily consider other options instead of preventive measures or instead of a preventive strike against the respective opponents. Such defense systems could help Allies achieve consensus on strategy in a crisis and truly stick together during a conflict. A missile defense potential could also make it possible to send certain signals in a crisis. The governments of the NATO countries could, for example, use the option to announce an increase in the readiness level in the area of ​​missile defense in order to express their unity as well as their determination and readiness for action. In 1991, the use of the Patriot anti-missile to protect Israel from Iraqi missile attacks showed that missile defense systems can be used to defuse a situation, limit a conflict, and manage a crisis.

Solving practical questions

However, the potential benefits have often been lost sight of when experts and government officials debated the numerous unresolved issues surrounding missile defense. These include questions of command and control systems, the setting of priorities in the face of scarce missile defense, the prospect of continued (and even greater) dependence of the Alliance on US capabilities, liability for debris damage due to successful interceptions against enemy missiles carrying WMDs response options of the opponent, technology transfer, costs, risk assessment, priorities with regard to the architecture of the missile defense systems and possible reactions of Russia.

Command and control systems for repelling a ballistic missile attack cannot simply be improvised in the middle of a crisis. The rules must be well thought-out and agreed long in advance in consultation, with clear rules of operation being laid down for the commander who would be empowered to initiate countermeasures in the event of a ballistic missile attack. In practice, this would almost certainly be an American, perhaps the Supreme Allied Commander in Chief Europe (SACEUR). The rules of engagement could be decided through alliance consultations, and the missile defense systems could be operated with input from allies.

Such management and consultation arrangements could regulate questions of prioritization and liability for damage caused by rubble. For example, how would the Allies decide which assets should be given priority protection in certain crisis situations? Would the capitals be protected first or the largest metropolitan areas first? Would preference be given to states that have partnered with NATO partners to carry out a particular operation? What would apply to the protection of neutral countries or non-member states of NATO? Would some interception systems be exclusively intended for the protection of Europe or North America? NATO understands these questions, but has not yet found definitive answers. The need to prioritize in the face of limited defense resources has now emerged as a major issue in Alliance consultations.

Another aspect of the command and control systems that requires more detailed analysis is the damage to the rubble; this arises from the risk that debris from an intercepted warhead could hit the territory of a non-member state of NATO or a NATO state which was not itself the target of the attack and which was not directly involved in the decision on countermeasures. Potential debris damage should be compared with the consequences that a planned missile attack would have. Not a single piece of debris from the Columbia space shuttle hit a human, and the space shuttle was much larger than a warhead, which (unlike the Columbia space shuttle) would be broken down into tiny particles by a non-atomic kinetic interception system. Therefore, in the event of off-atmosphere interception, the debris would likely burn up completely upon re-entry into the atmosphere. Even if the enemy were to deploy a nuclear warhead designed to explode when intercepted, causing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) (which is not that easy to do), the damage would be due to an EMP deployed at high altitude (albeit significant) almost certainly much less than the harmful effects of a nuclear attack on a large city. In addition to tremendous immediate destruction, a successful nuclear attack would result in fallout and cause catastrophic medical, social and economic costs over the long term. Nick Witney, then a representative of the UK government, may have thought of these consequences when he wrote in 2003: "I hope no European country would refuse to take the risk of debris falling on its territory after a successful interception, if that is the case The price would be to protect a nearby or distant friend or ally from a ballistic missile attack. "*

Russia's offensive deterrent potential would not be threatened by European missile defense systems from the United States or NATO, since these defense systems would only include a small number of interception systems. Despite criticism from Russian commentators, consultations with Moscow and measures to improve transparency may clear up any misunderstandings about the purpose and potential tasks of these interception systems. Since 2002, NATO and Russia have worked together and engaged in a dialogue on missile defense.

Even with poor accuracy and uncertain technical reliability, long-range missiles equipped with WMDs could also pose a significant threat to NATO countries.
The question of which reaction options are available to the opponents depends on the assessment of the dangers. Ballistic missiles are considered useful in many ways by those seeking their acquisition; they enable deterrence and coercion, they confer prestige, and they offer attack options. Defense systems for ballistic missiles could still induce some opponents to consider other attack options, e.g. manned aircraft, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) or bombs hidden in ports on board ships. In the latter case, should maritime surveillance fail, there would be no other means of defense than the threat of identifying the bomber and (as in the case of an explicit policy of deterrence) punishing the culprit. When discussing an adversary's bypassing options, missile defense systems are paradoxically recognized in that it means that these systems could be successful in preventing an adversary from attempting to acquire ballistic missiles. Adversaries determined to use ballistic missiles could acquire Russian and Chinese-developed intrusion aids and other antidotes, but they could not be sure that they are disabling the technologies that are used to identify and repel their missiles.

Precisely because there are other possibilities of attack, NATO is examining how the defense systems against manned aircraft, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles can be improved. With the exception of short-range interception systems, ballistic missile defense systems are practically useless with a view to defending against cruise missiles. As technology spreads, the actual and hypothetical dangers also increase. The governments of the NATO countries must make decisions and always be aware of the danger that extensive investments in countering one form of attack could leave NATO defenseless in other areas.

Perhaps the most serious cost problem is not that the adversaries have multiple attack options, but rather that most NATO governments have low defense spending and are trying to address other urgent military priorities. In recent years they have focused on ongoing operations (particularly in the Balkans and Afghanistan) as well as transformation issues related to the NATO Response Force. Many NATO members would likely be reluctant to commit to joint funding of a major new procurement program and would consider it better to postpone such a decision while Alliance experts work on the many unresolved issues, largely because answers to some of these questions are below Circumstances depend on technological advances. For example, sophisticated discrimination, location and trajectory calculation capabilities could make it possible to design guidance and control systems that optimize the likelihood of interception and minimize exposure to debris.

Future options

It is not clear whether the allies at the Riga summit scheduled for November 2006 will go beyond the call for "further work on politico-military considerations" made in June 2006 by NATO defense ministers. However, the summit could lead to guidance on future analytical and practical steps, including perhaps the establishment of a missile defense center at NATO headquarters.

In addition, it is possible that the United States and a few other NATO members could move on to developing a missile defense system for the full spectrum of attack missiles without waiting for the alliance as a whole to make a procurement decision. Key NATO tactical missile defense precedents in this regard include the SAMP-T program, in which France and Italy are involved, the Patriot programs, in which Germany, the Netherlands and the United States are involved, and the MEADS- Program (Medium Extended Air Defense System) in which Germany, Italy and the United States participate. SAMP-T, the Patriot System and MEADS all protect against short-range missiles. To counter long-range missile threats in Europe and North America, the United States could work with some NATO members to establish a missile defense position in Europe. (This would then be the third position, along with Alaska and California in the United States, that has ground-based interceptor missiles. It would then perhaps be more correct to speak of the "first European position".) This position for missile interceptors would be with a view to sensors and lines of communication from other missile defense positions in Europe and could protect much of the European NATO countries and North America from the threats posed by long-range ballistic missiles in the Near and Middle East.

If the United States and some other NATO members continue their work on missile defense systems for the full spectrum of attack missiles through bilateral cooperation programs, it could also accelerate the Alliance's collective decision-making process on missile defense. As in some other areas of alliance policy, all members of the alliance can take part in consultations, even if only a few participate directly in the practical arrangements. The NATO communications system could link national, multinational and alliance-wide missile defense efforts. In order to preserve the unity of the Alliance, it is essential to coordinate national programs and programs in which groups from certain NATO countries are involved with the relevant Alliance-wide efforts.

The United States is already exchanging information about missile launches with NATO members and other allies. A missile defense regime being developed with the United States and other NATO members at the forefront could provide all Allies with insight into the capabilities and operational principles involved, including changed readiness conditions.A missile defense system led by the United States in collaboration with a selection of allies could consist of ground-based interceptor missiles that would have to be networked with other capabilities (e.g. with the defense systems THAAD, Patriot and Aegis) in order to offer the alliance as a whole some protection. The cost of the system could be borne primarily by the United States and the European contributions could then consist of financial assistance, real estate, national sensors and anti-missile defense systems, and / or support personnel (including troop protection). Comprehensive protection of large cities and the territory of European NATO countries could well include significant ALTBMD components, because the networking of sensors and interception systems is of crucial importance for an overarching defense architecture against both short and long range missiles.

If NATO expressed its support for a comprehensive missile defense system, potential host states would have the certainty that an American missile defense position in Europe would not lead to conflicts or disputes with other NATO members. Such support from NATO, in conjunction with consultations with Russia, could thus lead to a positive framework for future cooperation among allies in the field of missile defense and would perhaps be understood by potential opponents as evidence of the alliance's determination.