Missile Defense: Avoiding a Crisis in Europe


Mar 29, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 29, 2007.

The United States and Russia appear headed for a new confrontation over American plans to deploy elements of an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, even though key questions about the need for the system remain unanswered.

President Vladimir Putin recently denounced the U.S. plans at a trans-Atlantic forum in Munich, calling the deployment of the missile defense system the "next step in an inevitable arms race." America's European allies have privately expressed similar concerns, though in less strident terms.

The United States should not abandon its plans to deploy a missile defense system just because of a temper tantrum by Putin or the blustering of a few Russian generals. But before America proceeds with the deployment, it needs to spell out more clearly the benefits and risks of the move. Here are the key questions:

Will the system work? The interceptors that the United States would deploy in Europe are essentially prototypes. Their effectiveness and reliability have yet to be proven. The testing program has been plagued by failures in the most basic interceptor components. The tests themselves have been highly scripted and have experienced a series of failures. At present, there is nowhere near enough data to determine how effective they would be, particularly under realistic conditions.

Why the rush? Given that the technology is still in development, why is there an urgent need to deploy interceptors and radar in Europe right now? The missile defense system being considered for deployment in Europe is supposedly aimed at deterring an attack from "rogue states" such as Iran, not Russia. While NATO allies are likely to face a missile threat from Iran before the United States does, that threat will not emerge overnight. Even if Iran perfects the missiles quickly, American intelligence estimates suggest that it is years away from having nuclear weapons and even longer before it could deploy them on ballistic missiles.

Who will have launch authority? Will Poland require the United States to get Polish authorization before interceptors are launched from its territory? Or will Warsaw be willing to give up a measure of sovereignty by handing control over to the Americans? During the Cold War, NATO was able to develop dual-key arrangements for nuclear weapons in Europe, but the extremely short timelines for intercepting a ballistic missile — just a few minutes — make such arrangements difficult to achieve.

How do American plans relate to plans within NATO to develop a missile defense system? NATO is exploring options to deploy a missile defense system, possibly with Russian involvement. What is the relationship between current U.S. missile defense plans for deployment in Eastern Europe and NATO's plans? If, as U.S. officials say, the missile defense system they want to deploy in Poland and the Czech Republic is not aimed at Russia, wouldn't it be better to develop a system within NATO that holds open the option of Russian participation?

Will the system protect Europe, or just the United States? The missile defense system currently being considered is primarily designed to protect America against a missile attack from Iran and North Korea. However, the deployments will need to be ratified by the Polish and Czech parliaments. Currently a majority of citizens in both countries oppose deployment. Unless they can be shown that the deployments enhance their own security, the plans will have a hard time winning parliamentary approval.

What will be the impact of the deployments on relations with Russia? If mismanaged, the missile defense issue could exacerbate strains. While many of the Russian objections are overstated, they reflect a deeper feeling — reflected in Putin's speech in Munich — that the United States makes important decisions that affect Russian security with scant regard for Russian interests and engages Russia only as an afterthought. If a crisis with Russia is to be avoided, the United States will need to address these broader Russian concerns.

Unless American officials address these questions more thoroughly, the U.S. missile defense plans are likely to generate increasing tensions not only with Russia, but also with many European allies, endangering not only the deployment plans but European security more broadly.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. David E. Mosher is a senior policy analyst at RAND.

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