"Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe"

Jeramy Ferguson

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Note: This article uses in-text citations; full references are provided at the end of the article.

One of the biggest threats facing the United States today is a nuclear attack from a rogue state such as North Korea and Iran. Iran has exacerbated the tense situation by not only launching animals into space (Cowell 2010), which suggests that Iran has the ability to make ICBMs, but also announcing to the world that it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in defiance of restrictions currently in place (Slackman 2010). Secretary of State Clinton recently commented that she is worried “that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship” (Landler 2010). One of the options that America has to counter an Iranian nuclear weapon is the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system. Until 2009, the U.S. was pursuing a BMD system in Eastern and Central Europe. This plan was abandoned in favor of a system to better counter short- and medium-range missiles. Given the recent aggressive actions by Iran and in order to better protect America and her allies from nuclear armed rogue states, the United States should resume its abandoned ballistic missile defense system in Central and Eastern Europe.

Policy History

The first major discussions about missile defense in Europe began in the late 1960s. The Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), consisting of all NATO counties except France, met multiple times between April 1967 and April 1968. During this same time, the United States announced plans to develop an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system to counter Chinese strategy. This act caused members of the NPG to feel as if they had been left out of the consultation process concerning the missile defense program. They thought that the new BMD system would create a new arms race, which could potentially lead to a conflict between the two superpowers, leaving Europe in the crossfire.  Europeans felt that this new system was focused more on fighting wars than it was on deterrence. Ultimately, the NPG decided that a Europe-based BMD would be too costly and would limit arms reduction talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (Yost 1982, 144-148; Bowen 2001). U.S. relations with the Russians did improve somewhat in 1972 when both countries signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  This did not limit ABM systems all together, but limited the type, number, location and transportation (to other countries) of these defensive systems (Carter and Schwartz 1984, 220-227).

The U.S. remained bound by the ABM treaty until President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty shortly after he took office. By 2004 the U.S. began installing BMD interceptors in Alaska and Colorado to provide protection from a North Korean nuclear attack (Hildreth and Ek 2007, 2-4). In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this did not bother too many nations. Nations like Great Britain and Canada expressed support for the program, but were unwilling to make any commitments concerning the missile defense system (Richter 2004). In 2006, President Bush announced plans for a ground-based mid-course defense (GMD) system in Europe. The system would include ten interceptors in Poland, a radar installation in the Czech Republic, and one other installation somewhere in the region (Hildreth and Ek 2007, 2-4).  This announcement was met with mixed feelings by European nations.

Poland accepted the BMD system early on in the negotiation process. The Poles’ main concern, however, was the security risk that the system posed to their country. Poland would surely become a target by agreeing to house the US system. They wanted extra security measures in the form of missiles in return for housing the system. Public opinion polls showed, however, that a majority of Poles were against the system. Most objections revolved around sovereignty issues and also the increased risk posed to the nation’s national security. The Czech government also initially showed support for the system, but a change of ruling party in the government and growing public opposition to the system led many in the government to oppose the system. Others in Europe have warned that the system would be costly and could potentially divide member countries of the European Union. Russia also expressed strong opposition to the program, even though Russia was invited by the Bush administration to participate in the program (Hildreth and Ek 2007, 4-8). After years of tense negotiations with the host countries, the United States government signed formal agreements with both Poland and the Czech Republic in the summer of 2008. The project was to be completed by 2013 with a projected cost of four billion dollars (Hildreth and Ek 2009, 1-2).

Current Policy

In September 2009, President Obama announced that the United States would no longer pursue the Bush administration’s European GMD system. Instead the U.S. will pursue an adaptive, four-phase strategy that includes housing smaller SM-3 missiles on submarines to counter small and medium range missiles from Iran. Later stages of the plan would include land-based components in Europe and Turkey. This plan would abandon the physical defense structures that were to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic and replace them with other land-based sites in other locations in the latter phases of the BMD plan.  The final stages of the program would be completed by 2020 at a cost of around five billion dollars (The White House 2010). There are both strengths and weaknesses to this current policy.

The new BMD policy uses the most technologically advanced system that is available to the United States. Considering the past track record of missile defense systems, which has been shaky at best (Hildreth and Ek 2009, 6-7), with the most recent tests being unsuccessful (Missile Defense Agency, 2010), it is important to make sure the United States is using the best technology available to make sure the system will be effective against enemy missiles. In the short-term, the system would mostly be sea-based which allows for speed and mobility that a land-based system can not offer (The White House, 2010; U.S. Department of Defense, 2010; Hildreth and Ek 2009). This speed and mobility would allow America to respond quickly to a launch from a country in the Middle East. A quick, mobile system would be a major advantage in trying to counter an attack from an Iranian medium range missile. This sea-based BMD system, just like other forms of BMD systems, would also act as a deterrent (Quackenbush 2006). Regardless of where the BMD system is located, if Iran knows that America has the capability to counter their attack, they would most likely not launch an attack on the United States or her allies because of the retaliation that would most likely follow.  The Obama administration’s new policy on BMD not only offers technological advantages, but has also improved relations with other countries who opposed the land-based European system.

As previously mentioned, Russia was opposed to the land-based system. The Russians felt that it was a threat to their national security and the strategic advantage that they hold in the region (Shoumikhin 1999). Some Russian officials even claimed that the BMD program was an attempt to put a US radar system in Europe to better monitor Russian missile sites (Hildreth and Ek 2009, 19). After the announcement of the policy shift, Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, called it a “responsible step” which would allow the United States and Russia to continue their dialogue about future missile defense projects. Leaders from NATO and other European countries including Germany, France, Austria and Slovakia also were pleased with the policy reversal (Hildreth and Ek 2009 1-4). Even with these strengths that the current policy offers, there are still some weaknesses associated with the current policy.

The current policy focuses on first combating short and medium range missiles and only in later phases does the current policy provide for land-based installations which could better counter ICBMs. This was based on intelligence which said that Iran was more likely to use these types of missiles as opposed to ICBMs (The White House 2010; U.S. Department of Defense 2010; Hildreth and Ek 2009). Given recent developments, however, this decision to focus immediate efforts on short and medium-range missile defense may need to be re-examined. Iran recently announced that it is capable of launching rockets into space (Cowell 2010). Even though space and weapon technologies are not exactly the same, if a country has the capability to send a rocket in to space, that country could potentially have the capability to launch ICBMs. The current policy does not provide for a system to defend against an ICBM until Phase Four (which would occur some time around 2020) (The White House 2010; U.S. Department of Defense 2010). This emphasis on short and medium-range missiles could potentially leave the US and its allies vulnerable to a long-range attack from Iran.

Another weakness of the current policy is the way that it treats the United States’ allies. The previous policy was the result of a long negotiation process in which the U.S., Poland and the Czech Republic spent a large amount of political capital to get their respective countries to support the program (Hildreth and Ek 2009, 2). Even though many foreign nations supported the policy reversal, there were many of our close allies who expressed disappointment at the policy reversal. Leaders and politicians in Poland expressed feelings of betrayal after the announcement. They felt that this was never about a missile defense, but rather the strengthening of an alliance (Champion and Spiegel 2010). Top officials in the Czech Republic were also disappointed by the abrupt reversal in US policy. They called on the U.S. to come up with some other acceptable defense plan. Some even expressed worry that this might have been an attempt on the US’s part to appease the Russians so they would take a harder stand on other issues surrounding the situation in Iran (Hildreth and Ek 2009). Even though many of our NATO allies applauded the decision to scrap the European land-based defense system, there are some countries that felt betrayed by this decision, especially after so much time and effort was spent to get approval for the system. This could cause problems in future attempts to get our allies to cooperate on defense projects in the region. If our allies feel as if we are just going to eventually drop out of future projects, they will probably be less likely to support them in the first place. The U.S. constantly needs make sure its interests are closely aligned with potential allies so it can pursue the policies it feels will best serve its purposes, especially when the United States needs to ask something of its allies that may not be popular with the citizens of those countries, as was the case with the BMD program in Europe.  

Policy Recommendation

Given the fact that Iran has the capabilities to build an ICBM and has recently announced that it has enriched uranium up to 20 percent, the United States should resume its previously planned land-based GMD system in Eastern and Central Europe. The land-based system allows for a “quicker” response to long-range missiles. The current policy would only have the capability to combat long-range missiles by around 2020, whereas the former policy would have this capability by 2013 (Hildreth and Ek 2007). This would essentially give the U.S. a seven year head start on its land-based systems, which would allow for testing and technological improvements to be made to the system to increase its effectiveness. This head start is also important because no one knows exactly when Iran will have a nuclear weapon. Some thought that they would have it by the end of 2009; others think it is still years down the road. The U.S. currently feels that Iran will not have nuclear weapons before 2013 (GlobalSecurity.org; Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2009). The previous policy concerning BMD would allow a defense system to be in place by 2013, which would be just in time to be able to counter an Iranian missile. It is important that the United States be able to respond to an Iranian long-range missile as soon as possible to protect the U.S. from an attack. The former policy allows America to do this more quickly than the current policy.

One of the biggest concerns regarding the previous land-based system was Russia’s reaction to it. They expressed concerned about the system and the United States’ motives for installing the system. This concern, however, is not necessarily warranted considering that the U.S. has invited Russia to participate in the missile defense program since the program was first announced. In 2007, Vladimir Putin presented a plan to President Bush to house the defense site at a Soviet launch site in Azerbaijan. Bush said that he would consider the option. After experts reviewed the site, they determined that the site would not be optimal because the facility was outdated and it was also located too close to Iran, the potential launch site of the missile. The U.S. even went as far to offer the Russians an opportunity to have an “oversight” presence at the BMD facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia rejected this, and continued to express opposition to the program (Hildreth and Ek 2009).

Russia was also concerned that the system would somehow pose a threat to their national security. There are fears that a defensive missile launched from Eastern Europe may be misinterpreted by Russian radar as an offensive missile attack on Russia. This could possibly lead to a Russian counter-attack, which could cause widespread casualties. There is also a concern that the system may be used against a Russian weapon at some point. While the Russians may be justified in expressing these concerns, the system itself does not pose a threat to Russia. If a missile is launched by the US over Russian airspace, then the United States would inform Russia that it was launching the missile to stop an Iranian missile (Gordon 1998). Also, as far as the BMD system being used against a Russian nuclear attack, the planned European BMD system is too small to counter a Russian attack given the size and capabilities of the Russian nuclear arsenal. The proposed system is also too close in proximity to the Russian launch sites in order to stop a missile that was launched from Russia (Moss 2009, 39-46; Guardian News and Media 2007). Some feel that there is more to the Russian opposition than just being concerned about their national security.

There are some who have argued that this opposition by Russia to the GMD system in Europe is an attempt to cause contention within NATO and at the same time “draw attention away from Russia’s suppression of domestic dissent, its aggressive foreign policy actions, and its nuclear technology cooperation with Iran” (Hildreth and Ek 2009, 20). Ultimately, this could be an attempt by Russia to reassert itself as a superpower. These arguments should not be dismissed, especially given recent developments. In 2008, the Russians signed a joint pact with the Chinese which essentially spoke out against the missile defense system in Europe (Wong and Cowell 2008). In fact, even after the U.S. changed its BMD policy, Russia was still not willing to cooperate in regards to Iran. After China announced that it would not support stronger economic sanctions with Iran, Russia followed suit (Landler 1 2010). Russian officials have even said that any missile defense, no matter where it is located, is a problem for them (Barry 2010). These actions have shown that no matter what, Russia is going to play hardball with the United States concerning Iran. The U.S. should not alter its policies to try and appease the Russians. As mentioned, recent actions show that Russia is pursuing its own foreign policy and cares very little about what the United States thinks. The U.S. needs to worry about its own security first and foremost, and that means doing what is necessary to protect the U.S. and her allies from an Iranian nuclear attack.

While the old policy should be resumed, there should be more involvement and discussion with the European and NATO community over the proposed BMD system. One of the biggest criticisms of the Bush administration’s handling of the situation in Europe has been that the U.S. essentially forced its will upon Europe. Europeans feel that the US acted in a hegemonic way in pursuing the defense system in the way that it did (Hildreth and Ek 2009; Moss 2009). NATO and like predecessors have been exploring the possibility of a missile defense system in Europe for decades (Benson 1997). Recently, in 2008, after a summit in Bucharest, NATO declared the importance of pursuing these types of system and the US system would provide increased security for the alliance. It also expressed cooperation among NATO members in determining the best plan for the alliance (NATO 2008). The problem was that the US interpreted this as a stamp of approval and went ahead with the plans they had already been pursuing instead of consulting further with members of NATO (Hildreth and Ek 2009).

Europe has a storied past when it comes to war and international politics. Its geopolitical importance cannot be underestimated. Its history and location play a large part in forming its views concerning national security. Its war torn past has caused it to view most advances in military technology politically, not defensively. Europeans tend to be concerned with the political ramifications of military defenses, given the fact that there have been many conflicts fought on their soil which began due to tense political situations. The US on the other hand has not been devastated by the wars it has fought; in fact they have been mostly successful. Their goal is to keep the US strong without worrying as much about the political ramifications. Given this troubled past, Europeans have a tendency to compromise to try and avoid a conflict from erupting. Even though many countries consider their interests to be above the common interest, many scholars have argued that the US suffers from “exceptionalism” and feels that it should not have to compromise with other countries and instead other countries should follow its lead. Europe’s physical location also makes it more cautious concerning military pursuits. It is located between the US and Russia. This has left Europe “caught in the middle” trying to balance its policies so as not to upset either side (Gray 2002; Bowen 2001; Bertram 1985; Stevenson 2003).

With these facts in mind, the U.S. needs to work with the Europeans to convince them that a BMD system is in their best interest and in the best interest of the NATO alliance.  Seaboyer and Thraenert (2006) suggest that the biggest problem for the NATO alliance would be that if “Iran, or another hostile state armed with nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, would be in a position to deter Europe’s intervention on the side of the United States to fight against regional aggression or humanitarian outrages” (90). If Europe is deterred for whatever reason from intervening on behalf of the U.S., it would make it much more difficult for NATO to respond to a nuclear attack. Europe would not be able to provide retaliatory measures in case any attack occurs within the alliance. NATO needs to make sure that both Europe and the US are capable and willing to provide protection from a nuclear attack. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has emphasized this recently when addressing the National Defense University concerning NATO. He said that a perception of weakness on the Europeans’ part, could potentially stir “miscalculation and aggression” from rogue states (Knowlton 2010). Europe and the U.S. must be united against potential threats. Since the U.S. is putting the system on their soil, the U.S. needs to adapt its strategy to Europe’s needs and wants. The United States must help the Europeans realize what is at stake and the importance of having military protection. The two continents must jointly work together so the enemy will not be spurred on by perceived weakness.

The former missile defense policy not only would help strengthen international ties, but it may also be more feasible domestically as well. Most Americans recognize that Iran is a threat to the United States and her allies. Following the 9/11 attacks America has been committed to protecting itself and its allies. Attitudes about spending have changed recently though. A majority of Americans are fed up with out of control spending by the government (Rassmussen Reports 2010). Even though most money in the federal budget goes to entitlement programs (Carter and Cox 2010) and a major solution to America’s monetary woes is solving the entitlement problem, finding a less expensive, reliable alternative to current solutions may be a way to gain further support from the American people. The defense system must be seen as something that is worth the expense by the American people. The current plan has cost estimates around five billion dollars, whereas the former plan had cost estimates around four billion dollars.  While one billion dollars is not that much comparatively speaking, it is something. If the public sees that Washington is trying to cut back on spending, they may be more supportive of the missile defense plan, especially given its unreliable track record. A more NATO-centered approach, where NATO shares some of the cost, might also be more popular among politicians who feel that the government is spending too much money. Given the current economic hardships, domestic support is just as important as international support when it comes to foreign policy issues. A return to the less expensive policy may receive more support from the American public than the current policy.

The threat that a nuclear armed Iran poses to the United States and her allies is very real. As the Cold War taught the United States, it is important for the U.S. to have a sound nuclear weapon program, but it is also important for the U.S. to have a defense system to be able to counter an Iranian attack. If the U.S. has a working BMD system, then it does not matter if Iran has nuclear weapons. In order to better defend the US and its allies, the US should resume its land-based European GMD program. This would allow for a quicker response to long-range missiles and also allow America to gain trust once again with our allies who feel betrayed after the U.S. abandoned the European program in favor of a more sea-based strategy. The United States’ allies need to know that the U.S. supports them and will not take their sacrifices for granted. As the U.S. resumes this land based policy, NATO should be consulted and involved in the process. The US and NATO must be committed to defense against nuclear weapons, so as to be ready to jointly respond to a nuclear attack. If the two are divided, that could leave both exposed to an attack. As the US pursues this land-based European policy, it will strengthen its alliance with NATO and in the process better protect both entities from an Iranian nuclear attack than the current policy does. 


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Full Citation for This Article: Ferguson, Jeramy (2010) "Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleFergusonBMD.html, accessed [give access date].

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