The missile shield: made to measure for a new Cold War


In August 2008 Poland and the United States, after years of negotiations, signed a treaty in which arrangements were agreed for the stationing of ten missile launchers on Polish soil. For the establishment of an accompanying radar installation on Czech territory, the Prague parliament has yet, at the time of writing, to give its permission. According to the original American plans, the system should be operational by 2013.

What is the strategic principle underpinning the building of the American missile shield in eastern Europe? This question urgently requires an answer, bearing in mind the shifting relations of power both within NATO and between NATO and the rest of the world. Related to it is the additional question of whether President Obama will continue his predecessor's construction programme, or if he will take into account the many objections to it. Furthermore, it is important to define the nature of this weapons system: is it offensive or defensive?


The missile shield's purpose was last year described by the Dutch government as follows: "That NATO must prepare in any way it can for the possible consequences of the spread of ballistic missiles, which continues to advance. In the opinion of the Netherlands, missile defence, whatever the situation, can play a role in this and can contribute to the security of NATO countries, provided different programmes and systems are properly coordinated."

At the same time the government acknowledged that there was no urgency involved: "To what extent this availability of capabilities is also leading to a real threat partly depends on the intentions and credibility of those who possess the missiles and on the probability that they are prepared to deploy them. In other words, it is not the case that countries which have a missile capacity by definition pose a threat to (the whole of) NATO's territory." In answer to parliamentary questions the government, moreover, has stated that "missile defence - wherever positioned - is defensive in nature."

The US government is more specific in its assertions. The Pentagon, for example, assumes explicitly that there is a missile threat from Iran.[i] This is seen as consisting of missiles with a medium-distance capacity or even an intercontinental reach, armed with nuclear warheads, either now or in the future. But the threat from Iran has is not been established as fact. According to the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) Iran has neither nuclear weapons nor a nuclear weapon programme.[ii] There are no operational missiles with the necessary range, at least not missiles fitted with nuclear warheads. However, work is being done on increasing the range of operational missiles with conventional payloads.[iii]

Technical and tactical problems

There have for years been doubts about the technical functioning of the American missile shield. The eastern European launcher base is an extension of existing North American installations in Alaska and California. This third eastern European missile base will also be controlled by the US armed forces. But according to research conducted by the (US) Union of Concerned Scientists, an essential precondition for rendering the system operational has not been met, namely the ability of radar detection systems to distinguish between real nuclear warheads and decoys. A country able to launch a missile with a nuclear warhead would also have the technical capacity to deploy such decoys, for example in the form of balloons which give off a radar echo similar to that of a nuclear warhead. The inability to distinguish between real and false threats would make it impossible for the system to find its target.

The system's test launches directed against intercontinental missiles have failed to solve this problem. Of the fourteen interceptions by the American BMD system, eight may have been successful, but these were conducted under artificial test conditions which are not comparable to operational deployment.[iv] Even an investigation by the Pentagon concluded, in 2008, that the systems had been made operational too quickly, before they were really capable of deployment.[v]

Even if the technical obstacles are overcome, a problem will remain for the European system. Any missiles which are shot down would break up and disperse over European territory and the radioactive fragments of the nuclear-armed warhead would fall to earth. This begs the question as to why an unfinished and dysfunctioning system is nevertheless being brought into service. It's possible that the extensive power of the industrial lobbies in the US Congress has played a role in this. The argument that it creates employment is often used to allay concerns.

Suppose that a potential adversary, in the light of these difficulties, is not certain one way or another of whether the system will work. They would be obliged to seek alternatives. These are also on hand, however, in the form of a different delivery system, such as a plane, ship or truck instead of a missile. You could even carry a miniature nuclear bomb in a backpack, on foot. In this way, the expensive missile shield would be evaded, and in a cost-efficient manner.

Defensive and offensive

A clear distinction between offensive and defensive does not actually exist. In the world of nuclear deterrence these terms are attached to weapons systems and seem implicitly to be an indication of the political intentions of the actor using them: aggressor or defender. But American strategists see the missile shield as part of the complete US strike force, the strategic triad. This consists of conventional and nuclear attack systems, passive and active defence (which includes the missile shield) and the supporting structure, such as the industrial base and the information system.[vi]

For these reasons it makes no sense to describe the missile shield as purely defensive, as it forms part of a whole that can be used both offensively and defensively. It can be compared to the shield and sword of a Greek hoplite or, on an operational level, the equipment of a Greek phalanx, a formation which used shields against an attack, then counter-attacked with sword and spear.

The missile shield is also regarded as part of a future strategy for space warfare. An envisaged arms race in space would then involve, in defiance of existing agreements, the permanent stationing of weapons systems in orbit.[vii] To date the United States have resisted treaty proposals aimed at preventing this.[viii]

The existence of an effective shield would make a more offensive, aggressive posture possible. one consider oneself safe behind a shield. Combined with a strategy which has as its starting point an initial attack on an adversary possessing weapons of mass destruction,[ix] a functioning missile shield could reduce the chance of retaliation, making it possible to wage a war of aggression with impunity. In this sense a shield is part of an offensive concept, one which can be utilised on both an an intercontinental level (as in a strategic nuclear war between Russia and the United States), and on a regional level, for example in an attack on Iran. In the first case a 'first strike' doctrine becomes a realistic option. What could take place as a consequence is this: the United States carries out a nuclear attack on Russia and destroys most of its nuclear-armed systems. What is left of the Russian systems to perform a counter-attack would then be shot down by the missile shield. In the second instance an amphibious expedition force deployed by NATO would be protected against missile attacks. The introduction of such weapon systems thus has military consequences, which could influence the political decision-making process. .

The radar systems could also, even in the case of a less offensive concept, play an important role in a nuclear war and thus disturb the strategic balance. Although the missiles will not work against other missiles, or barely, they could be used to shoot down slow-moving weapons systems, or those with a predictable course. On a tactical level this would apply to old-style aircraft, but also to cruise missiles (uncrewed fighter jets). On a strategic level, satellites could be shot down, because these move in a predictable orbit around the earth and are thus more easily targeted than are missiles. Both China and the United States have demonstrated that this is practical.[x] The destruction of enemy satellites is a precondition for the carrying out of a 'first strike' doctrine, a surprise attack, because this would put the enemy's command and intelligence systems out of commission. This is, moreover, precisely the reason why any arms race in space would be so dangerous. The loss of a space-based warning system could be seen as a reason to launch a nuclear war.

Russian reaction

Regarding the alleged defensive nature of the missile defence systems the Russian government, perhaps on the basis of considerations similar to those noted above, holds a very different opinion from that of the United States. Former President Vladimir Putin, for example, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's obvious that if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the US is located in Europe, which in the opinion of our military experts represents a threat, we will take the corresponding steps in response. Of course we will have to get new targets in Europe."[xi] Furthermore, it would at a later date be possible to expand the east European installations, adding extra radar systems and missiles. In broader geopolitical terms Russia regards the system as part of an American 'encircling strategy' which began with the initial enlargement of NATO and, in Russia's view, continues to be pursued. Days after the election of President Obama, President Medvedev declared that he would be placing missiles in Kaliningrad in order to neutralise the missile shield.[xii] He was clearly not convinced that the system was aimed exclusively at Iran.

Given the American war doctrines which lie behind the concept, Russian protests against the missile shield are not necessarily overblown. They are supported by the American researcher Theodore Postol, who argues that the launch system in Poland, despite the US government's disavowals, could be utilised to intercept Russian missiles after they had been launched.[xiii] This explains Russia's offer to station a warning system in the Caucasus against a possible Iranian attack, under joint Russian-US control. American negotiators have, however, rejected this proposal.

More recently the Russians have announced counter-measures, such as the possible deployment of Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad, within reach of the Polish anti-missile installations. In addition, the strategic strike forces are being further enlarged and the level of preparedness raised.[xiv] At the same time, Moscow is taking counter-measures elsewhere. The Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), which places limits on the numbers of conventional weapons systems which are permitted within the territories of NATO and of Russia, was suspended in 2007. Since then, there have been a number of geopolitical conflicts, such as in Georgia and in relation to gas deliveries to Europe. Looked at in this way the missile shield is not a direct cause of the Russian policy, but certainly a powerful symbol of the growing number of confrontations. The usefulness of the missile shield is not something of which all European leaders are convinced. French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated last November that European security would not be enhanced by it.[xv]

NATO plans

The extension of the North American missile shield into eastern Europe (Euro Missile Defence - EuroMD) was approved retrospectively by NATO.[xvi] In addition, successive communiqués announced that the systems, which were already under construction, would be made compatible with each other. In this spirit, NATO's Riga Summit of November 2006 decided to coordinate all short-distance (TMD) systems, and unite them into a single system, the NATO Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence System.[xvii] This system would thus also offer protection from middle- and long-range missiles.[xviii] The Dutch government also agreed with this step. Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told Parliament in December 2007 that he agreed "with the opinion of the Secretary General of NATO that an integrated missile protection system is needed, because on this point also the indivisibility and security of NATO must be priorities."

Previous to this, in June 2007, NATO had already decided to commission a study into an anti-missile system which would be linked to the EuroMD anti-missile system for south-eastern Europe.[xix] A geographically obvious next step would be the coupling of the NATO systems to the US-Israeli Arrow anti-missile shield to counter short- and middle-range missiles.[xx] Such a link would have far-reaching consequences for political relations between Europe and the Middle East.

A NATO testing installation opened in February 2008 in The Hague reviewed the mutual compatibility of the systems. In addition, steps were taken towards the integration of the NATO systems with EuroMD. Verhagen confirmed this to Parliament, saying that "Possible NATO initiatives on this matter will of course be closely linked to the American initiative." On 10th November 2008, Secretary of State for Defence Jack de Vries, answered questions on the matter in the Standing Committee for Defence by saying, "Yes, they can be linked to each other."

There exists, furthermore, a secret NATO study into a BMD-system for the whole of Europe, the Missile Defence for the Alliance Territory, Forces and Population Centres (MD), that would complete and indeed duplicate the North American system, but with a stronger European contribution and influence. This feasibility study was completed in 2005 and the final communiqué of the Riga NATO Summit of 2006 included the following announcement: "At Prague we initiated a Missile Defence Feasibility Study in response to the increasing missile threat. We welcome its recent completion. It concludes that missile defence is technically feasible within the limitations and assumptions of the study. We tasked continued work on the political and military implications of missile defence for the Alliance including an update on missile threat developments." In a paper from the German centre-right political think-tank the Adenauer Foundation, a proposal was made for a variant of this latest, still secret plan, which offered a number of options (ranging in cost, according to the authors, from a few hundred million euros to twenty billion) which could be coupled with the EuroMD-programme in Poland and the Czech Republic. This could happen through use being made of NATO's existing 'two hats' command structure and would mean, de facto, that the Americans would exercise decisive control over the system. It included in addition a proposal for a second anti-missile base to be constructed in north-west Europe.

The options arising from the NATO study will be presented at the next NATO Summit, in April 2009. Recent NATO communiqués have repeatedly declared that the alliance is prepared to study the possibility of linking the anti-missile systems of NATO, the United States and Russia.[xxi] In view of the confrontation over EuroMD, however, this appears no more than a paper option.

A new Cold War

The plans for the eastern European missile shield do not represent an end in themselves. In the eyes of the American strategists, they form a stepping stone on the way to an ambitious coordinated project, in which the separate systems designed to counter every kind of missile - short-range, medium-range or intercontinental - can gradually be integrated. The position of the new US government is unclear. Directly after Obama's electoral victory, his closest advisor Denis McDonough said of the president-elect that "His position is as it was throughout the campaign, that he supports deploying a missile defence system when the technology is proved to be workable."[xxii] This allows maximum political flexibility. Spokespeople from the US defence industry have demanded clarification.[xxiii] In December 2008 a delegation of the United States Congress announced in Prague that it supported the missile shield.[xxiv] This is not, moreover, a matter which concerns only Europe and NATO. Washington is involved in a whole range of plans which will be elaborated in cooperation with its allies, including agreements and projects with Japan, South Korea, Israel, Australia and India.[xxv]

So the two bilateral agreements between the United States and Poland, and the United States and the Czech Republic, are the thin edge of a wedge, introducing a much more ambitious project that in the nature of things will be centrally controlled by the American military command structure. As a result of the short warning period in the event of a missile attack, decisions must, after all, be taken extremely quickly. This means that as a result of such international cooperation, national military and therefore political control will be lost. In view of the far-reaching political consequences and the problems sketched out above, any such development would be extremely inadvisable.

Karel Koster works in the research department of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands. article first appeared in Dutch in the Internationale Spectator the journal of the Netherlands Institute for International Affairs,popularlay known as 'Clingendael', in March 2009.

[i] See Proposed "US Missile Defense Assets in Europe", US Dept of Defense, 15 June 2007.
[ii] See the report by director Al Baradei to the IAEA Executive Council, GOV/2008/59 19 November 2008
[iii]Richard L. Garwin, 'When could Iran deliver a nuclear weapon?', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 17 January 2008.
[iv] "Missile Defense Success Questioned", The Independent, 21 December 2008; Center for Defense Information, "Missile Defense Flight Tests", 28 April 2008.
[v] Joe Cirincione, "New Pentagon Report Slams Missile Defense Agency", Huffington Post, 20 October 2008 .
[vi]Report of the Congressional Research Service, 10 August 2006, p. 24.
[vii]13. Amy Butler, 'USAF Eyes Counter-ASAT System in 2011', Aviation Week and Space Technology, 16 March 2008.
[viii]See U.S. National Space Policy 2006: 'The President authorized a new national space policy on August 31, 2006 that establishes overarching national policy that governs the conduct of U.S. space activities. This policy supersedes Presidential Decision Directive/NSC-49/NSTC-8, National Space Policy, dated September 14, 1996.'
[ix] The US pre-emptive doctrine of 2002: 'National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction'
[x]Peter Grier & Gordon Lubold, 'U.S. missile shoots down satellite - but why?', in: Christian Science Monitor, 22 februari 2008.
[xi] APS Diplomat News Service, "The Wider US-Russian Issue Over Missile Defence", 11 June 2007.
[xii] 'Kremlin Signals Intent To Wait for Bush to Go', Moscow Times, 10 November 2008.
[xiii] Theodore Postol (MIT), 'Proposed US Missile Defense in Europe: Technological Issues relevant to Policy', Presentation, Capitol Hill, Washington DC, 28 August 2007.
[xiv]'Russia may place nuclear missiles in Belarus Moscow orders 70 strategic nuclear missiles by 2011', AFP, 24 December 2008.
[xv] Nicolas Sarkozy, "Missile defense shield bad idea", UPI 15 november 2008
[xvi] 'Nato to back US missile defence', BBC News 3 April 2008 ; Final communiqué, Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Foreign Ministers, Brussels, para. 32 (2008)153, 3 December 2008.
[xvii] 'The signature of the first major contract for a NATO Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence system which is a major step towards improving the protection of deployed NATO forces.' (para 24, last line, of the Riga Summit Declaration, 29 November 2006 )
[xviii] For details see Joris Janssen Lok, 'Grand Designs', Defense Technology International, March 2007.
[xix] For the debate within NATO, see Aviation Week & Space Technology, 11 June 2007; and Janssen Lok, ibid.
[xx] Aron Heller, 'Israel, U.S. Test Missile Defense', Washington Post 18 March 2007
[xxi] NATO communiqué, 3 December 2008, para. 32.
[xxii] 'Obama denies Poland missile vow', BBC News, 8 November 2008.
[xxiii] Baker Spring, Peter Brookes & James Jay Carafano, "Obama needs to resolve contradictory positions on BMD policy", UPI Outside View Commentators, 13 January 2009.
[xxiv] 'U.S. Congresswoman confirms in Prague USA needs missile defence', Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, 18 December 2008,
[xxv] For Japan see Robert Maginnis, "The Pacific Arms Race" , 1 April 2008 ; for India, "India, U.S. Consider Missile Defense Cooperation", Global Security Newswire, 27 Feb. 2008 ,