The Geopolitics of Missile Defense

Recent Features

Features | Society

The Geopolitics of Missile Defense

Many nations already have, or are acquiring, short- and medium-range missiles. The United States is leading the efforts to negate such threats.

One of the interesting effects of ballistic missile defense is how it has affected relations between states. The decades of tension that have arisen between Moscow and Washington over strategic defense issue are well known. Now U.S. ballistic missile defenses (BMD) are driving China and Russia closer together.

But missile defenses can also strengthen relations between countries. For example, missile defense has become an important dimension of the revitalized Japan-U.S. security alliance. BMD has strengthened cooperation between both countries directly through their joint BMD programs, discouraged Japan from developing its own nuclear deterrent, and induced Tokyo to broaden its defense collaboration with other countries by relaxing its arms export rules. The same pattern may arise in the Middle East, where Iran’s neighbors are pondering whether missile defenses can obviate their need to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. In other cases, the BMD issue has had diverse effects. South Korea, for example, has sought to benefit from U.S. technologies without alarming China by joining the Pentagon’s wider regional efforts.

The United States finds itself at the heart of the international politics of missile defense. Its leading global role in developing and deploying BMD technologies and its worldwide network of alliances both empower and oblige the United States to defend much of the world from missile attack. These same alignments also provide the ties the Pentagon needs to construct a globally linked network of BMD sensors and facilities.

For this reason, Washington has lobbied its friends and allies to cooperate with U.S. regional BMD initiatives as a means to strengthen mutual defense capabilities and to supplement traditional U.S. nuclear and conventional deterrence guarantees with missile defenses. The Obama administration has also used its strong investments in missile defense to reassure countries concerned by the administration’s desire to downplay the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy. U.S. officials have persuaded most allied governments that missile defenses complement deterrence by causing potential aggressors to doubt that any attack could succeed as well as providing a hedge should deterrence fail.

More than 30 countries already have, or are acquiring, short- and medium-range missiles able to deliver conventional payloads at great speed and distance. Some are trying to develop longer-range missiles that can carry warheads armed with various weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological). The 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) predicts that the missile threats to the United States and its allies will grow in quantity and quality as antagonistic states increase the size and capabilities of their ballistic missiles. With respect to the latter, ballistic missile systems are becoming more flexible, mobile, reliable, survivable, accurate, and able to fly longer and farther.

In principle, U.S. BMD systems make several critical contributions to U.S. security. They can:

·         defend the American homeland, U.S. forces and citizens located overseas, and U.S. friends and allies

·         deter such attacks by enhancing both the capacity and the perceived will of the defender to thwart any aggression

·         dissuade potential aggressors from seeking to acquire and deploy ballistic missiles or nuclear warheads by reducing their perceived value

·         reassure U.S. friends and allies about the U.S. will and commitment to defend them, which contributes to other U.S. goals such as dissuading them from obtaining nuclear or other destabilizing retaliatory weapons

·         overcome anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) and other asymmetric tactics that use missiles to try to negate U.S. conventional advantages

Under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the United States has employed a variety of tools to address these missile threats. U.S. officials have engaged in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in an effort to persuade North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear weapons programs and refrain from the further testing of ballistic missiles. They have also used declaratory policy by repeatedly warning these countries against developing, testing, or using these capabilities. Additionally, the United States has provided security assistance to help U.S. allies enhance their own defense capabilities. The Pentagon also bases or deploys large numbers of U.S. troops in each region, with an impressive range of conventional and unconventional capabilities, reinforced by U.S.-based assets with global reach, such as long-range strategic bombers. The United States has offered many of these countries diverse security guarantees, including implicit and sometimes explicit pledges to potentially employ U.S. nuclear capabilities to protect them. Finally, the United States has been constructing missile defense architectures in each region as well as globally to counter Iranian and North Korean missile threats. These include short-range missile defense systems such as PAC-3 batteries, theater defenses such as THAAD and Aegis-equipped naval vessels, and the ground-based midcourse interceptors based in Alaska and California.

Indeed, during the past decade, the United States has made considerable progress in addressing these missile threats through augmenting U.S. and allied missile defenses. In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the United States has been working to establish the foundation for a regional missile defense system made up of U.S. forward deployed BMD systems combined with those of U.S. friends and allies. The United States has been pursuing BMD cooperation (joint research and development programs as well as selling BMD systems) with various countries in Europe (bilaterally and through NATO), the Asia-Pacific (Japan, Australia, and South Korea), and the Middle East (Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council members).  These allies and friends can host forward-based BMD sensors and missile interceptors, share the costs of building and maintaining the BMD architecture, and network their data with other actors to provide a superior operational picture.

In each region, the administration has been pursuing a phased, adaptive approach that adjusts U.S. BDM policies in a flexible manner as the missile threats evolve. Its approach to missile defense in each region has differed based on the specific threats that region faces as well as the level of regional cooperation mechanisms that are in place.

In Europe, for instance, the Obama administration has worked more closely with NATO as a collective alliance as well as individual NATO countries such as Romania and Turkey to develop its European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).  The EPAA has redirected U.S. BMD efforts closer toward Iran to address that country’s limited-range missiles. As Iran’s missile capabilities improve, the EPAA will deploy increasingly more advanced SM-3 interceptors that can protect more NATO territory.   Under the EPAA, the United States is deploying Aegis BMD and Aegis Ashore capabilities throughout Europe to protect countries against Iran’s short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.  The first phase of the EPAA has already been deployed with the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey (carrying SM-3 interceptors) deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, while Turkey hosts a BMD radar system. The U.S. Air Operations Center’s BMD command and control capabilities at Ramstein Air Base in Germany have become operational, which will support the upcoming phase two development of land-based SM-3s in Romania. The Romanian system is scheduled to become operational in 2015, just after U.S. Aegis destroyers arrive at their new homeports in Spain. In Phase 3, a land SM-3 site will be established in Poland, though the planned Phase 4 deployments of even more advanced interceptors for Poland are being reworked given the March 2013 cancellation of the SM-3 IIB.

Japan is one of the United States’ closest BMD partners. The country has acquired its own layered missile defense system that includes Aegis BMD ships with SM-3 interceptors, Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) fire units, early warning radars, and a command and control system, as well as a forward-based X-band radar.  Japan deploys two classes of Aegis configured destroyers: the KONGO Class and the ATAGO Class. In 2003, the KONGO class was upgraded with BMD capabilities.  Japan is the only other country besides the United States that has the capacity to intercept ballistic missiles well above the upper atmosphere, confirmed by several sea-based intercept tests (the Japan Flight Test Mission, or JFTM, series). Together with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Japan is helping develop the next-generation SM Block 2A system that will enable defense of larger areas and against more sophisticated threats. The United States and Japan recently agreed to construct a new early warning radar in southern Japan to augment the already functioning X-band radar in northern Japan, at the Shariki base.  The two countries are particularly concerned about North Korea’s potential development of a long-range missile and China’s development of anti-ship missiles.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) is a global ally of the United States and Washington has helped the ROK develop its BMD capabilities.  The ROK has acquired Aegis ships and PATRIOT batteries and has expressed interest in land- and sea-based missile defense systems, early warning radars, and a command and control system.  Historical and other tensions between Japan and South Korea have kept them from cooperating effectively on missile defense or many other security issues.  The ROK has also declined to share its BMD assets with other countries through a networked regional BMD architecture for fear of antagonizing China, which fears that the United States is using missile defense as a means to encircle China with revitalized U.S. bilateral alliances in Asia. Like the South Korean forces, the U.S. BMD assets in South Korea are limited to defending themselves and their host country from a DPRK missile attack.

Australia has been one of the United States’ first BMD partners since the July 2004 signing of a BMD framework memorandum of understanding. The United States and Australia share BMD data and participate in multilateral missile defense war games. Australia’s currently developing three Air Warfare Destroyer.   U.S. officials are reviewing the possibility of establishing a third X-Band radar in the Philippines, where it could help track ballistic missiles launched from North Korea or parts of China.   The Philippines’ territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea have encouraged the Philippines to seek to strengthen their security ties with the United States.

In the Middle East, Washington has attempted to counter the ballistic missile threats in the region through regional alliances, for example the GCC, bilateral arrangements with individual Middle Eastern governments, and through unilateral measures to protect its armed forces and interests. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is purchasing both Patriot and THAAD BMD missiles from the United States, while other GCC-states have already deployed Patriot batteries and are considering buying other anti-ballistic missile systems.  Israel also continues to work closely with the United States on BMD matters; it has Patriot missiles systems, hosts advanced U.S. BMD radars, and is working jointly with the United States to develop its own advanced BMD interceptors.