Missile Defense Umbrella Is Operational, But ‘Limited,’ NATO Says

May 21, 2012 - 4:27 AM

USS Monterey

The Aegis-equipped guided missile cruiser USS Monterey underway in the Mediterranean Sea on June 3, 2011. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Viramontes)

(CNSNews.com) – The early stages of the Europe-based ballistic missile defense system that has dogged U.S.-Russia relations for a decade are up and running, NATO announced Sunday.

Speaking at the transatlantic alliance’s 25th leaders’ summit in Chicago, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the missile defense shield has achieved “interim capability.”

“This means that NATO has initiated a capability that, although limited in its initial phase, can provide real protection against ballistic missile attack,” the White House explained in a fact sheet.

As part of the shield, President Obama has instructed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to transfer operational control of a U.S. radar in Turkey to NATO, it said.

“The radar’s information, combined with the NATO command-and-control system, gives NATO missile defense commanders a comprehensive and real-time operational picture, enabling them to employ the available missile defense assets effectively.”

The control-and-command system, to be funded by all 28 member-states, is located at NATO’s Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany.

The Obama administration’s reworked version of its predecessor’s missile defense proposal is known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Phase one, now operational, entails the deployment of the radar station in Turkey and a U.S. Navy Aegis warship in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped to track and destroy ballistic missiles in flight.

Looking ahead, Spain, Romania and Poland have agreed to host key EPAA assets: four U.S. Aegis ships at the Rota naval base in Spain, a missile interceptor site in Romania in 2015, and one in Poland in 2018.

Other European contributions include independent French plans for a space-based early warning system and a long-range radar; Dutch plans to upgrade four ships with missile-defense radars; and a German offer of its Patriot missile defense systems.

In the military jargon being employed, the current “interim capability” is scheduled to be followed by the next milestone – “initial operational capability” – in 2015, and then by “full operational capability” in 2018.

“Full operational capability,” in the wording of a NATO declaration issued at the last summit, in Lisbon in 2010, is the provision of “full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces against the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.”

“Our system will link together missile defense assets from different allies – satellites, ships, radars and interceptors – under NATO command and control,” Rasmussen said in Chicago Sunday. “It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Those threats are primarily viewed as coming from Iran, which possesses a well-tested short- and medium-range missile capability and – with help from North Korea – has been developing longer-range missiles including a model whose claimed range of some 1,200 miles theoretically threatens Israel, the Gulf states, Turkey, parts of Central Asia and south-eastern Europe.

Despite the focus on Iran, Russia has opposed U.S. missile defense plans for Europe for more than a decade, asserting that it will weaken its own nuclear deterrent and harm its security. The Pentagon has given repeated assurances that the system will not be designed to counter the Russian intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal, or be capable of doing so.

Nonetheless, Moscow has threatened on and off for at least four years to respond by deploying short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, an exclave of Russian territory bordering Poland. Some military officers have gone further than that implicit threat, with a top general early this month threatening “to use destructive force pre-emptively” if necessary.

In an attempt to ease concerns, NATO invited Russia to participate in the system, and at the Lisbon summit two years ago Moscow cautiously agreed to do so. But ongoing differences, including a Russian insistence on a binding non-aggression treaty of some type, remain unresolved.

‘It cannot be blocked by Russia’

NATO’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, issued in Chicago, reiterated the assurance that Russia was not being targeted.

“NATO missile defense is not oriented against Russia nor does it have the capability to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent,” it said. “The alliance, in a spirit of reciprocity, maximum transparency and mutual confidence, will actively seek cooperation on missile defense with Russia and, in accordance with NATO’s policy of engagement with third states on ballistic missile defense, engage with other relevant states, to be decided on a case-by-case basis.”

Recently re-elected President Vladimir Putin, who opposed U.S. missile defense during his 2000-2008 terms in office, declined to attend the NATO summit (he also skipped the G8 leaders meeting at Camp David late last week) and there was no immediate official response from Moscow.

During a press conference Sunday, Rasmussen said NATO would continue talking to Russia on the issue but stressed that Russia had no veto over NATO decision-making.

“We have decided to develop a NATO missile defense system because we consider the missile threat a real threat, and against a real threat we need a real defense to protect our populations effectively,” he said. “And of course that cannot be blocked by Russia – it’s a NATO decision.”

“But having said that, we have invited Russia to cooperate on missile defense and this invitation still stands,” he continued. “And we will continue our dialogue with Russia and I hope that at a certain stage Russia will realize that it is in our common interest to cooperate on missile defense.”

Rasmussen pointed out that “the Russian population is also threatened by potential missile attacks.”