NATO defense missiles near Russia’s border have angered Vladimir Putin. Is the U.S. missile system the solution in today’s uncertain world?

Romanian honor guard soldiers during ground-breaking for anti-missile defense facility, Deveselu, Romania, 12 May 2016 (EPA/Robert Ghement)
Romanian honor guard soldiers during the ground-breaking for the NATO anti-missile defense facility, Deveselu, Romania, 12 May 2016 (EPA/Robert Ghement)

By Giulia Morpurgo

The opening of a new U.S. missile defense base in Romania has sparked protest from Russia and will be high on the agenda of next month’s NATO summit in Warsaw.

The base is part of a U.S. defense system that Washington says would shield U.S. and allied territory from enemy missiles.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Western moves upset the strategic balance in Europe.

The opposing viewpoints recall tensions during the Cold War, when the two biggest nuclear powers — the United States and Soviet Union — relied on nuclear deterrence to maintain an uneasy peace.

Is a defense shield against ballistic missiles — weapons that are shot high through the sky over long distances and then fall to their target — the solution in today’s uncertain world, when the Cold War is over and new security threats have emerged?

What is the defense shield?

The idea of a defense system to protect the United States from attack dates back to the last days of World War Two, when plans by Nazi Germany for a missile strike on New York were discovered.

Manhattan’s skyline was never threatened, but pressure for a protective shield against incoming missiles grew in post-war years as the West and the Soviet bloc engaged in an arms race.

Such a shield would use radar to detect the launch of ballistic missiles and interceptors to destroy them in space before they reach their targets.

Nuclear deterrence, on the other hand, depends on the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction: that one nuclear power would never attack another because it could be sure that its enemy would have time to launch a devastating counter-attack.

A protective anti-missile system stands that logic on its head: If one country thinks it can shield itself from counter-attack, it might be emboldened to attack first. An anti-missile system could also fuel an arms race by spurring efforts to build ever-more powerful offensive weapons.

Thus, in 1972 the United States and Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, limiting each party to 100 anti-ballistic missiles.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty helped prevent a nuclear arms race.

The ABM treaty also bolstered the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sought to prevent more countries joining the “nuclear club” of five: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China and France.

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States changed the situation radically. The world was suddenly a more uncertain, threatening place in which terrorist groups could challenge and threaten a nuclear superpower.

Meanwhile, globalization and technological development allowed a greater number of countries to acquire the wherewithal to develop a ballistic arsenal.

Several upstart countries obtained nuclear weapons, among them Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

A new fear was born: that a terrorist organization could get its hands on nuclear material from a country that was antagonistic to the United States or which had inadequate security for its nuclear stocks.

In 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the ABM Treaty before setting up the Missile Defense Agency the following year.

Interceptors operate with a “hit to kill” technology.

The U.S. missile defense system is extremely complex.

Battle Management, Control, Command and Communication (BMC3) constitutes the engine of the entire system. At its heart are trackers — either sensors or radars.

Trackers are used to detect hostile missiles, which can be located from the ground, at sea or by satellite. Interceptors are then ordered by the BMC3 to take down missiles with “hit-to-kill” technology, before they reach their target.

The American missile defense system aims to shield all countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from the nuclear missile threat, and the United States has sought to set up defense structures in Europe, including in some ex-Soviet states.

The Bush administration had planned to build a defense site in Poland, but President Barack Obama feared this would have sent a threatening message to the Kremlin. He opted instead for the AEGIS combat system based on warships patrolling the Black Sea.

No change in U.S. anti-missile strategy is likely.

But the United States continues to use land bases for its anti-missile strategy elsewhere in Europe. The latest was inaugurated in Deveselu, Romania on May 12, and relies on a radar in Turkey. Other sensors are planned in Portugal, Poland and Spain.

NATO says the shield is designed to protect its 28 member states from Iran. But Russia says NATO wants to neutralize Moscow’s nuclear arsenal long enough for the United States to strike Russia in the event of war. NATO’s deployment of the shield follows Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The Western defense pact will discuss plans to deploy the anti-missile shield more widely, as well as Russian moves to reinforce its western and southern flanks with three new divisions, at a summit in Warsaw July 8-9.

It is an open question whether the missile defense base will in the end prove an effective solution to the nuclear missile security threat.

But in light of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January and concerns about Russia and Iran, the United States is unlikely to change its strategy any time soon.


Giulia Morpurgo is a second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying Political Economy. She is passionate about ancient history, European literature and enjoys traveling. Giulia would like to become a journalist either in economics or current affairs, communicating stories that would otherwise remain unknown. 

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