Attempting to defend Europe against a Russian ballistic missile attack would be “extremely challenging and costly,” according to the State Department’s top missile defense official. Frank Rose, Assistant Secretary of State, said that “the size and sophistication of Russia’s strategic missile force” outweighs US and NATO defense interceptors otherwise “available to defend against such a large force.” Rose’s comments came at the Atlantic Council’s Annual Missile Defense Conference on June 25.

NATO’s missile defense systems, first rolled out in 2010, “were designed to protect against a limited threat like Iran, not a threat like Russia,” said Friedrich Wilhelm Ploeger, who until recently served as Deputy Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command. The United States’ European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which serves the backbone of NATO’s missile defense architecture, is comprised of missile defense radars in Turkey, Aegis missile defense ships in the Mediterranean, and forthcoming Aegis ashore sites in Poland and Romania, to be completed in 2018. Currently, US missile defenses in Europe “are neither designed nor directed against Russia,” according to Rose. Consequently, NATO needs to be “very realistic about the technical capabilities of [its] missile defense systems.”

Ian Brzezinski, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, argued that “we need to rethink NATO’s missile defense program to give it extra punch against Russian capabilities” and that the EPAA needs to be adjusted to “better address threats to the East” and adapt to the new security environment, which varies drastically from the environment NATO faced in 2010. Russia’s trend of using “rhetorical nuclear blackmail…is only going to ratchet up,” according to Conley, making a credible deterrent posture critically important to the Alliance.

But others think that such a move could further alienate Russia from the international community, further exacerbate West-Russia tensions, and diminish chances of West-Russia cooperation on other security priorities. “We need Russia when we deal with Iran, we need Russia when we deal with North Korea, and we need Russia when we deal with the Islamic State,” according to Mustafa Kibaroglu, Chair of the Political Science and International Relations Department at MEF University in Istanbul.

Missile defense has become one of the most prescient topics in transatlantic security as Russia ramps up its rhetoric on nuclear and conventional missile capabilities, which is directed at potential threats from NATO. But NATO has thus far not reciprocated. On the nuclear question, Heather Conley, Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe Program, said NATO “is a bit rusty…reluctant, and reactive.” Conley spoke alongside Brzezinski, Kibaroglu, Ploeger, and Rose on the transatlantic missile defense panel at the Atlantic Council’s conference.

Historically, missile defense has been a highly contentious issues in NATO-Russia relations, even before the onset of the conflict in Ukraine that eroded West-Russia relations to its lowest point in the post-Cold War world. Balancing ballistic missile threats from NATO’s southern flank through Syria and Iran with NATO’s eastern flank remains one of the most difficult and important agenda items that the Alliance faces today.

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