Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been struggling to find its role in a complex and changing security environment. Complicating this effort is the fact that most of European NATO’s military forces were oriented towards territorial defense of a Soviet conventional assault on Western Europe. The threats of the 21st Century are both farther away and more complex. They include global terrorism, ballistic missiles and advanced precision munitions, weapons of mass destruction, cyber attacks and high-performance air defenses. To meet these new threats and project power beyond Europe’s boundaries required investments in new capabilities. Unfortunately, most NATO members saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as an excuse to cut defense spending. The 2008 global economic meltdown and continuing problems with the Euro have put additional pressure on defense budgets.
Operations in Afghanistan and Libya laid bare serious weaknesses in NATO’s military capabilities. Many of these problems were pointed out by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who warned the alliance that if they did not make a serious effort to address major shortfalls that they risked undermining the trans-Atlantic relationship.
In response, NATO committed to pursuing a series of initiatives, most under the heading of “Smart Defense,” intended not only to acquire new capabilities but to unlock the potential available in existing national forces through the pooling of assets and greater coordination on investments. For example, NATO has made substantial progress towards addressing strategic and tactical airlift shortfalls. Seven NATO members have placed orders for 170 A400 long-range transports. To meet the current shortfall in heavy air transport, NATO supports two initiatives: the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution, an arrangement under which 14 nations have pooled their resources to charter six Antonov An-124-100 transport aircraft and the 10 nation Strategic Airlift Capability which acquired and is operating Boeing C-17s. NATO has moved forward to create a common Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) capability, acquiring five Global Hawk Block 40 unmanned systems equipped with advanced radar as the core of its capability. The AGS program also will have access to the United Kingdom’s Sentinel and French Heron TP unmanned systems.
Today, the United States is bearing most of the burden of providing missile defenses for Europe. Under the European Phased Adaptive Approach, four U.S. Aegis ballistic missile defense destroyers with the Standard Missile 3 Block 1A are being forward based in Rota, Spain. In addition, between now and 2018, the U.S. will deploy a shore-based version of the Aegis/SM-3 defense in Eastern Europe. Currently, the alliance and its member nations deploy only a very limited missile defense capability based largely on systems intended primarily for air defense. The Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense program is designed to provide the planning and information capability to support development and deployment of a functioning ballistic missile defense for NATO based on national capabilities.
The most significant initiative NATO could undertake at this time to bolster its defensive capability, implement the Smart Defense concept and reassure the United States would be to deploy a sea-based ballistic missile defense. Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark together have 10 warships (4, 4 and 2) with radars that could be easily modified to handle ballistic missile defense engagements and vertical launch systems (VLS) that could accommodate SM-3 interceptors. With this capability, NATO could continually deploy at least two missile defense-capable ships in the eastern Mediterranean providing protection not only for Europe but Israel too.
The U.S. needs to press its allies to move ahead with the necessary modifications and upgrades. To date, the U.S government has limited itself to anodyne comments about the need for greater burden sharing and defense cooperation. It is time to get specific and push for the deployment of real defensive capabilities. In fact, how about proposing a quid-pro-quo? If Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark agree to undertake the modifications to their ships’ radars, combat suites and VLS launch systems, the U.S. will give them the SM-3s. The savings from not having to commit four Aegis-capable destroyers to Europe would be worth the small costs of the interceptors. Talk about Smart Defense!
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