European Missile Defense after Ukraine and the Iran Deal

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With the conclusion of a joint plan of action for Iran’s nuclear program, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia has returned to his favorite talking point: that NATO should scale back missile defenses.

NATO should do nothing of the sort. Not only does the Iran deal not roll back the most numerous and diverse missile program in the region, it stipulates the removal of missile sanctions after eight years. U.S. administration officials have rightly opposed suggestions of curtailing missile defenses. After years of declaring NATO missile defense plans to be ironclad, such a rollback would undermine both U.S. credibility and NATO solidarity, by extending the pattern of cancellations begun in 2009 and 2013.

Indeed, Europe’s missile defense needs have arguably increased, thanks to Russia.

Since the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, NATO has urgently evaluated force realignments, forward deployments, and military exercises. In terms of missile defense plans, however, it is as if Ukraine never happened.

NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept declared missile defense to be a core alliance mission without reference to specific countries or threats. The current U.S. contribution is the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which has been scaled down to three phases of SM-3 interceptors deployed on Aegis ships as well as ashore in Romania and Poland.

Other components include the alliance-wide command and control network and investments by individual nations. Poland and Germany have recently announced their respective decisions to acquire PATRIOT and MEADS. The Baltics are understandably interested in similar capabilities.

Much more should be done, including for lower-tier threats like Iskanders, SS-21s, and INF Treaty–noncompliant cruise missiles. In their individual defense authorization bills, both the U.S. House and Senate called for increased NATO air defenses.

More robust and integrated air and missile defenses would not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent. With missile defense as elsewhere, good fences make better neighbors. As Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller pointed out, nobody objects to Russia’s air defenses or their 68 interceptors around Moscow.

Countering Russia’s nonstrategic missiles could instead be stabilizing by discouraging ill-conceived, Crimea-like attacks. NATO’s approach should not be to create an impenetrable shield, but to complicate Russia’s provocation calculus by the metrics of deterrence—raising the cost and uncertainty of attack, blunting conventional military forces, and buying time for NATO to react. Besides serving as a bright symbol of alliance cohesion, improving defenses would communicate to Russia that aggression is counterproductive.

Such steps would be consistent with the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which emphasized rather than disavowed short-range defenses. They would also be a logical application of the review’s careful emphasis that future capabilities would evolve and adapt to new circumstances.

With the memory of Ukraine still fresh, the time is ripe to update NATO’s air and missile defenses to deter Russian aggression. Instead of scaling back EPAA, we should consider ways to expand it.

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Tom Karako, "European Missile Defense after Ukraine and the Iran Deal," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 27, 2015, last modified April 27, 2021,