Transatlantic missile defence plan moving ahead
By Brian Beary in Washington | Wednesday 19 October 2011
The US government seems to have the wind in its sails in moving ahead with its planned missile defence system in Europe. Buoyed by a string of diplomatic successes with European governments, the US State Department official in charge of the dossier has hailed the “tremendous progress” made in 2011 in developing a land and sea-based system that can intercept missiles from potentially hostile nations, with the Middle East a particular focus. Whereas a previous plan hatched by the administration of George W. Bush met with scepticism and resistance from various EU governments, parliaments and publics, the Obama administration seems to have overcome such sentiment. The only European country still overtly resisting is Russia, although even there Washington is holding out hope that Moscow will eventually come on board.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC, on 18 October, Ellen Tauscher, under secretary for arms control and international security, gave a detailed outline of the state of play. As a result of US agreements with the governments of Spain, Romania, Poland and Turkey in September, a Europe-wide radar system should be installed in Turkey by the end of 2011; a Southern Europe interceptor site should be operational at the Romanian air base in Deveselu by 2015; and its Northern European counterpart in Poland by 2018. Meanwhile, Spain has agreed to host four ships for the sea-based interceptor part of the plan, and the Netherlands is spending €250 million to make its radar system compatible with the revamped US plan. All of this is being done under the umbrella of NATO, Tauscher stressed, unlike President Bush’s earlier plan, which was US-led. The goal is for NATO to give its final blessing at a summit in Chicago, in May 2012.
Probed on Russia’s continuing opposition, Tauscher stressed that the system “is not directed at Russia” and “has no capability to counter Russian forces”. She admitted “we need a paradigm change” if Moscow is to be integrated into the system. But she said this was what the US ultimately wanted because the two countries had different assets that could be pooled together, thereby cutting costs and making both more secure. On the budgetary side, she acknowledged that Washington would like European governments to contribute more to the system’s set-up but added “we understand the tough economic conditions”. Asked about the system’s ‘automaticity’ component, Tauscher said there was “general agreement” among NATO governments that interceptors will be deployed automatically in the event of an attack.
SUPPORT FOR NATO LEAD ROLE
European defence policy experts at the conference mostly shared Tauscher’s assessment of the growing level of support for the plan. Michael Rance, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, noted that “controversy over the system has faded” in the United Kingdom. The Obama proposal was “much better” than former President Bush’s, he said, by being less threatening toward Russia, more flexible and cheaper. A key question looking ahead would be “whose finger is on the trigger”. Rance suggested that this be NATO and not the US. From the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, Bruno Gruselle said that France’s interest would likely focus on command and control issues. He noted that funding was an issue too, with an impending 20% cut in French defence spending and the French military “having no interest in missile defence”.
Slovak scholar Tomas Valasek at the Centre for European Reform said that Central European governments would prefer if Europe contributed more financially to the system rather than relying so heavily on the US. He said the “perception of Europeans free riding” could create friction in future transatlantic relations. Gülnur Aybet, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent, said that Turkey was backing the new plan because it was NATO, not US-led, and did not explicitly name Iran as a threatening nation. Several of the experts predicted that Israel’s potential involvement in the system would become an issue for discussion moving forward.