Europe and missile defence

Europe and missile defence

Bulletin article
03 April 2000

On each side of the Atlantic a new defence initiative is seen from the other side as unnecessary, confusing and worrying: the Europeans' plan for a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) and the Americans' plan for National Missile Defense (NMD). And there may be a connection between the two, for an American deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems could seriously damage the Europeans' scheme to give the EU a role in defence.

America is highly likely to deploy a system that is designed to shoot down small numbers of ballistic missiles from "rogue" states. There is a political consensus in Washington that Iran and North Korea may be capable of striking US soil with ballistic missiles within five years. But while many Republicans are not that bothered if the deployment of NMD breaches the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty between the US and Russia, most Democrats are keener to persuade the Russians to renegotiate the treaty to make it NMD-compatible.

National Missile Defense will consist of early-warning satellites, land-based radar stations and a limited number of ground-based interceptor missiles. It is not designed to protect America against Russian or Chinese nuclear missiles. However, China worries that NMD could knock out its entire (and relatively small) arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Most European governments, Britain's included, think NMD a bad idea. First, they are more sanguine than the Americans about the potential threat: North Korea is a long way from Europe, while Iran seems to be becoming democratic. Second, they regard the ABM treaty as a cornerstone of international disarmament agreements, and they do not want the US to provoke the Russians by disregarding it. Third, if NMD prompted Russia and China to improve their ABM systems, the British and French deterrents could be devalued. Fourth, they worry that if the US had NMD, and Europe had no equivalent, their security could be "de-coupled": rogue states might try to blackmail Europe rather than the US.

National missile defense could damage Europe's embryonic defence policy. For it is likely to engender bitter transatlantic arguments, as did President Reagan's earlier plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative (or "Star Wars"). And it will be hard for the Europeans to make a success of ESDP unless America plays a supportive and constructive role – for example, by agreeing that NATO should lend its assets in support of EU military missions.

There is also the problem of money. The Europeans' commitment to a "headline goal" of a 50- 60,000-strong rapid reaction force already has a credibility problem, because of cuts to defence budgets, especially in Germany. If the Europeans did decide that the threat of ballistic missiles justified some pan-European equivalent of NMD, the likely cost of $10-20 billion (for an "off-the-shelf" system) would leave them even less money to spend on the promised power-projection capabilities.

A successful ESDP requires a united front among the major European powers, especially Britain and France. Yet NMD threatens to drive a wedge between them. The British and French governments are broadly opposed to NMD. But the gut instinct of some French policy-makers is to stand up to the US and to criticise it in public. The gut instinct of many British policy-makers is to avoid rows with the US by edging towards American policy. A gentle shift in British attitudes towards NMD is already evident in the Ministry of Defence, though not yet in the Foreign Office.

The Fylingdales radar station in Yorkshire, run jointly by the US and Britain, poses a conundrum for the British. The Americans want to upgrade the Fylingdales radar, to make it a key component of NMD. If the British said no, they would risk damaging their special relationship with the US on defence and intelligence. But if they said yes, they would be heavily implicated in NMD – and a potential target for rogue states. The British might then want to make use of their indirect involvement in NMD, not only to gain research contracts, but also, possibly, to develop some anti-ballistic capability of their own. And then British security would be de-coupled from that of its EU partners.

The Europeans should urge the Americans not to rush into deployment, and to make every reasonable effort to work with the Russians on ABM modification. And the Europeans must strive to hold to a common line. That will be a real test for their ESDP.

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