The increasing prevalence of ballistic missiles has been highlighted by the latest tensions with North Korea, the ongoing confrontation with Iran, and Syria’s savage civil war. Approximately thirty countries are now armed with ballistic missiles. This number will grow, as will the range, accuracy, and lethality of the ballistic missiles available to friend and foe alike.

Defenses against ballistic missiles have also evolved tremendously over the last three decades. They defend populations, protect military assets at home and abroad, and mitigate the intimidation that adversaries might seek to achieve through ballistic missiles. Missile defense is also emerging as an important multilateral endeavor. While this is occurring largely at a regional level, it is not too early to consider the ways in which like-minded allies and partners across the globe can integrate their missile defense capabilities.

A review of existing efforts supported by the United States in the Middle East, Asia and particularly Europe highlights the many ways in which countries are beginning to both develop and connect their missile defense systems.

The United States has always stood as the world’s leader in missile defense. Its systems, like the Patriot missile, have been proven in combat during both Gulf Wars. It has deployed in Alaska and California the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, consisting of interceptors, land and sea-based early-warning radars, and a command control system. The GMD system is capable of defeating limited attacks by intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The United States has fostered regional missile defense cooperation for well over two decades. Its long history of security cooperation with Israel includes the co-development of the David’s Sling and Arrow 3 systems.

Washington has promoted missile defense capabilities and collaboration among the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Several of these nations, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, have procured Patriot missiles. The UAE intends to also to purchase the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. U.S. Central Command has sponsored regional ballistic missile defense exercises, and the GCC and U.S. recently agreed to deepen missile defense cooperation to promote peace and stability in that region.

In the Asia-Pacific, like in the Middle East, U.S. missile defense cooperation remains largely a set of bilateral affairs. But Washington has been making gradual progress in promoting multilateral cooperation, and a key catalyst has been North Korea’s belligerence. South Korea has procured Patriot systems and supporting surveillance and command and control elements. Japan, in addition to deploying Patriots, Aegis Combat System-equipped ships, and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors, has partnered with the U.S. to develop a more advanced version of the SM-3.

U.S. multilateral efforts in the Asia-Pacific also include two trilateral discussions bringing together Australia, Japan and the U.S., as well as Japan, South Korea and the U.S. These nascent initiatives are helping to dilute the historical impediments to security cooperation among these nations and laying the foundation for deeper, more comprehensive partnerships.

Washington’s missile defense advocacy has had its greatest success in the transatlantic arena. The U.S. has committed its own resources to European missile defense through the European Phased Adaptive Approach. In 2011, the U.S. deployed an AN/TPY-2 radar in Turkey, built a command and control center in Germany, and in 2014 will permanently station Navy guided missile cruisers equipped with SM-3s in Spain. The U.S. will deploy land-based SM-3s in Romania in 2015 and in Poland by 2018, broadening the coverage of Europe.

Building on U.S. efforts, in 2010 NATO adopted the protection of Allied territory and populations as a core responsibility. It directed that the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) program become the command and control backbone of that mission, linking Allied and U.S. missile defense systems based in Europe into a common missile defense architecture more powerful than its parts. ALTBMD will become fully operational between 2018 and 2020, and represents a major step towards a global architecture.

It should be no surprise that transatlantic missile defense stands as the most advanced of these regional initiatives. No other institution matches NATO’s experience in complex integrated multilateral military operations, making it an ideal test case for increased cooperation. It united countries from around the world in military undertakings in the Balkans and Afghanistan; combined countries of the Maghreb, Persian Gulf and Europe in military action in Libya; and, has underway today an expeditionary missile defense operation involving the deployment of U.S., German and Dutch Patriot batteries to Turkey’s Syrian border.

Missile defense is an expensive and challenging undertaking. Collaboration leads to cost savings and increased capabilities through the sharing of sensor coverage and an expanded pool of interceptors. Cooperation increases the prospects for multiple engagements of incoming targets, reducing the risk of a missile attack hitting its mark.

A ballistic missile threat rarely encompasses just one country, and the growing range of modern ICBMs means that one aggressor nation can be a threat to a significant portion of the global community. These are the realities driving regional missile defense efforts toward the first hints of a global missile defense network.

As missile defense capacities mature, it is common sense in a world where ballistic missile threats are proliferating in number and expanding in reach for the U.S. to leverage its web of global partnerships to break down national barriers, increase the geographic reach of multilateral cooperation, and create a serious dialogue about the potentials and requirements of a global missile defense architecture.

Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This piece first appeared on RealClearDefense.

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