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Obama's New Approach to Missile Defense in Europe

by Jenny Shin

This article was originally published by the Center for Defense Information

A European missile defense system is still underway in spite of criticism that President Barack Obama has abandoned plans and security commitments to deploy a missile “shield” in Europe. On the contrary, the recently announced “Phased, Adaptive Approach” for a European missile defense system revamps proposals made under George W. Bush to add more flexibility to counter a potential Iranian missile threat and provide more security for U.S. allies in Europe. Not only does Obama’s missile defense plan reaffirm U.S. commitment to Europe’s security and strengthen ties with European allies beyond the Czech Republic and Poland, but it also allows Europe to take on a bigger role in a comprehensive missile defense plan that will ultimately be developed on its home turf. 

The Obama administration’s European missile defense plan sets aside the Bush-era plans of deploying 10 Ground-based Interceptors (GBI) and building a radar site in the Czech Republic. This initial plan was based on the notion that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile capabilities were far more advanced and developing at a faster rate than was actually the case. (1) According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “the intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles…is developing more rapidly than previously projected” and “the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006.” (2)

Moreover, the initial proposal was focused on countering intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), or long-range missiles. This left little room for flexibility in dealing with Iran’s existing short- to medium-range ballistic missiles and adapting to Iran’s technologically evolving threat over time. The fixed interceptors in Poland also would not have provided coverage for all of Europe, leaving some NATO allies unprotected, namely Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey. Without the ability to fill in these missing gaps, especially in a situation that would require a quick adjustment to a changing threat, the Bush administration’s proposal would not have been as effective in providing security for Europe and the United States, especially in the near term.

The recently announced plan by the Obama administration fills in the missing pieces by introducing a four-stage phased strategy of deploying missile defense components over the span of ten years. (3) The benefit of the phased approach is it provides the United States and NATO allies with more defensive firepower sooner and allows the system to adapt to changes in Iran’s threat assessment during the ten-year timeframe. The four-stage plan distributes a combination of fixed and relocatable Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors and radars throughout Europe that focuses on deploying existing missile defense components closer to the threat in the near term. Over time, more advanced SM-3 Block IIA and IIB interceptors will be deployed in the event that Iran develops longer-range missiles that can reach all of Europe. Currently, Iran does not have any missiles with this capability. As a hedge against either technical difficulties with SM-3 Block II development or new developments in Iranian long-range missiles, the Obama plan also continues the development of GBIs, ten of which were to be originally deployed in Poland under the Bush plan.

An additional benefit of the phased approach is it allows the United States and its European allies to roughly measure the deterrent effect of missile defense on Iran. As each phase of the plan is implemented, the United States and NATO can track the progression of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and simultaneously pay close attention to Iran’s reaction as the United States and NATO phase in advanced missile defense technology. While external factors affecting Iran’s pace of missile developments should be duly noted, the assessment could potentially provide a more concrete evaluation of the effectiveness of missile defense to deter rogue nations. The ten-year time span to implement the four stages of Obama’s plan provides ample room for improving methods of evaluating missile defense deterrence on Iran. However, it should be cautiously approached since any assessment will still be limited in the sense that deterrence theory assumes Iran will be a rational player. Iran may very well retaliate by building up its offensive forces and countermeasures to overwhelm the defenses.

Fortunately, the “phased, adaptive approach” emphasizes an important element to the European missile defense architecture that the Bush-era plans lacked – the role of European allies in the framework of missile defense plans. The administration’s European missile defense policy aims to engage allies and NATO members more closely by integrating multilateralism in place of the individual bilateral agreements between the United States and Poland and the Czech Republic respectively. Furthermore, it incorporates NATO’s existing technologies and missile defense capabilities into a more comprehensive defense structure. Secretary Gates recently stated during the Defense Department’s news briefing on Sept. 17, 2009, “One of our guiding principles for missile defense remains the involvement and support of our allies and partners. We will continue to rely on our allies and work with them to develop a system that most effectively defends against very real and growing threats.” (4) NATO’s involvement will surely provide added value to the system. However, in the long run, it is the bulwark of aligned European countries with the United States that will pose a stronger deterrent than the physical missile defense systems themselves. If Iran attempts to launch a missile at a NATO ally, it will face the consequences of its actions not from one country but from all NATO members.

Adding to this renewed alliance is Russia’s possible participation in the revised missile defense plan. NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, recently stated in his first major speech as the Secretary General: “We should explore the potential of linking the U.S., NATO and Russian missile defense systems at an appropriate time…Both NATO and Russia have a wealth of experience in missile defense. We should now work to combine this experience to our mutual benefit.” (5) The Secretary General voiced his hopes of reviving the NATO-Russia Council where common security concerns could be discussed and further cooperation between NATO and Russia could be enhanced. Missile defense, among other security concerns, can play a role in bringing the two parties together as Iran is a concern for both NATO and Russia. The Secretary General’s speech also sends the right tone to Moscow, which has been skeptical of U.S. missile defense in Europe. In the near future, the NATO-Russia Council should reconvene through a forum where NATO and Russia can engage in open dialogue on existing and future missile defense technologies that can contribute to the overall missile defense architecture in Europe. Welcoming Russia’s cooperation will help to further strengthen the defenses, and moreover, send a stronger message to Iran that the United States does not stand alone in this endeavor to curb Iran’s rogue activities. 

Iran’s recent missile tests show how real and unpredictable the threat can be. This points to the need for a more practical approach to missile defense that will be flexible and capable of dealing with evolving missile threats in the near term and the longer term. With the unanimous support from Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Obama administration’s proposal for Europe moves missile defense in the right direction and takes measured steps to integrate advanced technologies over time; adapt to new threats through flexibility and phasing in of new technologies; and incorporate European allies and Russia’s involvement to bolster the defenses and strengthen U.S. commitment to Europe’s security.


1. Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson, “Obama Shifts Focus of Missile Shield,” The Washington Post, September 18, 2009.

2. Department of Defense, DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Gen. Cartwright from the Pentagon, September 17, 2009, http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4479.

3. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy: A ‘Phased, Adaptive Approach’ for Missile Defense in Europe,” September 17, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FACT-SHEET-US-Missile-Defense-Policy-A-Phased-Adaptive-Approach-for-Missile-Defense-in-Europe/.

4. Department of Defense News Briefing, Sept. 17, 2009.

5. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “NATO and Russia: A New Beginning,” Speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the Carnegie Endowment, Brussels, September 18, 2009, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/NATO_Rasmussen.pdf.

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