NATO politicians have recently become rather quiet on the public discussion about US plans to build a missile tracking and fire-control radar in the Czech Republic, along with a corresponding launch site for ten interceptor missiles in Poland. This public silence, in combination with other factors, indicates a growing consensus among European NATO partners that the project is indeed vital, and that it should not be opposed, but rather complemented by European NATO efforts to close the remaining geographic and non-strategic protection gaps.
The project is unpopular, however, with the ill-informed general public in NATO member states in both Europe and North America. This explains both the current NATO silence—an apparent attempt by partners to pull the sensitive issue out of the public debate—and the ongoing Russian efforts to stimulate NATO domestic opposition against the project, through a mixture of spectacular public appeals and straightforward threats issued by high-ranking state representatives.
In this crucial and difficult phase for a key twenty-first century strategic defense project, leading Western politicians should be very careful about public statements that might further confuse NATO’s public, thus creating ideal focal points for Russian as well as Iranian efforts to mobilize democratic public opinion against what they conceive as NATO impediments to their offensive strategic objectives of dividing the Alliance.
Unfortunately, DefenseNews.com reported on November 14 that Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., had issued statements claiming that the European ground-based missile defense site was “intended mainly to protect the United States, not Europe.” Rep. Tauscher, Chairman of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, was elected Chair of the Subcommittee on Future Security and Defense Capabilities of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in October, making her an even more prominent US actor on the issue. Thus the US Missile Defense Agency’s spokesman Rick Lehner was adamant in his response that the planned sites in Poland and the Czech Republic were “designed specifically to defend most of Europe,” and would have only “a redundant capability to defend the US”
So who is right here? Neither: both speakers are right and wrong at the same time, each in their own way. Both statements imperil the success of the project, much to the delight of its opponents within and outside NATO.
Missile Defense coverage with inceptor missiles in Poland
and a radar system in the Czech Republic:
Missile Defense coverage without inceptor missiles and radar system in Europe:
A US Project, For Good Reason
At its conception, the current US concept for ground-based missile defense was designed to defend the US homeland against possible future strategic WMD attacks emanating from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. The United States has so far invested more than 110 billion US taxpayer dollars into the project. The European allies, meanwhile, have paid nothing, despite many invitations to join in. Thus it should come as no surprise that the project’s primary objective is the defense of the US homeland and other US strategic objectives.
This is where Europe enters the picture: the protection of European NATO allies against nuclear blackmail is a vital strategic interest of the United States. An alliance divided, and a US isolated from its unprotected European allies in the event of future common security challenges, would directly threaten US national security in a fundamental way. In other words: the West can prevail against emerging threats to its common interest and security only if it remains undivided, which requires similar levels of protection for each key ally.
This is why the Bush Administration—in one of its deplorably few sound strategic assessments—decided to erect the first line of Atlantic, or East Coast, midcourse defense in Central Europe, despite offers by former British PM Tony Blair to welcome the systems in the UK, and despite the available technological option to base similar systems on US warships, or platforms in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic. In other words: in order to protect both the US homeland and key strategic US allies in Europe, the Bush administration had to choose a land site located as far east towards Iran as technology permits, enabling it to protect most of Europe while allowing for sufficient time to track and engage a few incoming long-range missiles. It is self-evident that this choice of location is also in the vital interest of otherwise unprotected allies in Central and Western Europe.
Much Is At Stake
Undifferentiated and simplistic claims imperil the success of the project. The wrong impression that the planned system is designed only to protect the US will further undermine the essential European public support (also in terms of future European co-funding), and give Russia and Iran ideal arguments for driving their propaganda wedges deeper into the West. An equally wrong impression—that the system was designed primarily for the current European free-riders—after more than a decade of US development efforts will undermine crucial Congressional funding approvals in the US. Policymakers within NATO would be well-advised to abstain from misleading, albeit conciliatory, public statements.
Andreas Beckmann is a senior consultant at the Atlantic Initiative and a security analyst based in Berlin.
Both images originate from a presentation by Lieutenant General Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Christoph Bertram: Weak America=Weakened Europe
- Atlantic Faces Interview with Victoria Nuland, US Ambassador to NATO
- Eckart von Klaeden opines that Missile Defense Means Common Security for Russia, Too
- Jan-Friedrich Kallmorgen and Andreas Beckmann argue that Missile Defense Will Enhance German Security