The Case for a NATO Missile Defense

When the 28 NATO allies gather in Lisbon on Friday, one of the most important issues on the agenda will be how to address a real and growing danger to the trans-Atlantic region: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

Today, NATO confronts a security environment like no other in its history. The threat of major conventional conflict in Europe — the worry at NATO’s founding — has virtually vanished.

The agenda of the 1990s — extending the principles of democracy, individual liberty and rule of law to the whole of Europe — is far from finished, but on track.

Now the forces of globalization have brought new security challenges to the North Atlantic area. And among the most pressing is the threat of weapons of mass destruction delivered by ballistic missiles.

This danger is neither distant nor dubious. As the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review makes clear, ballistic missile systems are becoming more flexible, mobile, survivable, reliable and accurate. Their range is increasing, placing the populations and territory of the trans-Atlantic region at increased risk. At the same time, several states are pursuing nuclear, chemical, and/or biological warheads.

Deterrence and diplomacy are powerful counters to this growing threat. And by all means, they represent our first line of defense. But they cannot stand alone. They must be complemented by a credible and cost-effective capability to defend against ballistic missiles.

Because of this, the United States has proposed that in Lisbon, leaders of the alliance adopt territorial missile defense as a NATO capability.

NATO territorial missile defense would not be starting from scratch. The alliance already has a program to protect deployed forces. We seek to extend this protection to NATO’s European populations and territory as well.

Moreover, the United States is on track to provide the lion’s share of this capability. Our contribution, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, will exploit advances in sensor and interceptor technologies to swiftly deploy a strong, smart missile defense system. At the core of the system is the SM-3 missile, a proven ship-borne system that will also be deployed on land at sites in Romania (by 2015) and subsequently in Poland (by 2018), thereby providing full protection against the evolving missile threat.

These U.S. capabilities will contribute to a NATO missile defense system. The NATO system, called ALTBMD, will bring together the allies’ nationally owned sensors and interceptors into a coherent whole. The key component is a standardized information-sharing network that allows the early warning data from one ally to reach the interceptor system of another, creating a much more capable, multi-layered defense.

Extending this system so allies can protect their populations and territory from missile attack is affordable — less than €200 million over 10 years. That’s very little money for a lot of capability, especially since all 28 allies share the expense. For a midsize ally, the cost equates to less than half a tank each year.

Once fully operational, this capability will protect all 28 allies and can extend its aegis of safety to other nations — to include NATO partners like Russia. The system thus provides an opportunity to engage with our Russian partners — who are also threatened by the proliferation of ballistic missiles — through a substantive cooperative missile defense program. Such engagement should allay any concerns Russia may have about NATO territorial missile defense, and could also improve Russia’s own anti-missile capabilities.

At Lisbon, leaders face many important decisions about NATO’s role in global security. They will build on the alliance’s enduring values and common commitment to update NATO for the modern day. One such decision is whether to adopt territorial missile defense as a NATO capability. Given the real and growing danger of ballistic missiles, and the affordability of ALTBMD, it is clear that on territorial missile defense, the allies should choose “yes.”

Ivo H. Daalder, the U.S. permanent representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.