"To put it simply, our new missile defence architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defences of American forces and America's Allies. It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost-effective; and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats; and it ensures and enhances the protection of all our NATO Allies."
President Barack Obama, 17 September 2009
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 April. The annual RUSI Ballistic Missile Defence Conference is an interesting event. Like all RUSI conferences it is good stuff and brings together the defence industry and decision-makers with policy wonks such as yours truly. This year was no different. However, I am always struck on such occasions by the way representatives from the defence industries, particularly US defence industry, talk technology firm in their belief that their latest whizz-bangs will sell themselves. That might work in the US but no longer works in Europe. However, as the US will soon pile enormous pressure on its European allies to spend more on armed forces the defence industry as a whole is going to have to talk strategy and affordability, as well as technology.
Let me turn first to the event itself. In some ways there was a mismatch between requirement and capability at this year’s conference. The focus was on the ongoing development of US-funded NATO missile defence. Now, I say missile defence because the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) is specifically designed and sufficiently limited not to bring into question the ‘credibility’ of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.
The existing NATO missile defence plan is in effect a stand-alone system that has little or nothing to do with Article 5 collective defence of the Alliance. Indeed, the current ‘architecture’ is only designed to ‘kill’ the missiles of some thirty non-Russian states to the south and east of Europe who might one day launch a very limited number of missiles against NATO populations and forces. For that reason the number of radars and planned interceptors is very limited.
The thinking is that by not challenging the ‘credibility’ of Russia’s nuclear deterrent European stability will be maintained. What stability? Indeed, I found it strange so many at the conference repeated the need to reassure Russia. Reassurance for what? It is a fair question given that Russia seems determined to unilaterally bust out of all existing European arms control treaties, most notably the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces. Is not ‘reassuring’ Russia at this time a fool’s errand. After all, Russia is deploying a range of nuclear-tipped missile systems to places like Kaliningrad that are simply not treaty compliant, most notably Iskander M missiles with both a ballistic and flat trajectory.
What is needed instead is modernised Article 5 collective defence architecture of which missile defence is an important part. Such an architecture would need to include an enhanced NATO anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capability, strengthened cyber defences, enhanced resiliency of European states, systems and societies, better intelligence and more shared intelligence, increased numbers of advanced deployable conventional forces, AND relevant missile defence. Moreover, much of these enhancements will fall to the European taxpayer to fund because US forces are inevitably going to become ever more overstretched given global commitments which the Americans must bear.
To that end, defence industries must understand that NATO is fast approaching a strategy, affordability, responsibility tipping point at which all the old assumptions about who pays what for what will be tossed out. Therefore, to help European governments make the necessary informed choices about the balance to strike between strategy, affordability and capability it is critical now that the defence industry as a defence industry demonstrate they understand the challenges governments face. They must also offer the technological solutions not just to meet the worst-case threat, but also to bridge the gap between strategy, affordability and capability.
Now, I am no naïf about such matters. I have seen how defence contractors operate in Washington through K Street lobbyists. Moreover, I am fully aware of how in Europe, particularly in France, there is little distinction between the political, bureaucratic, and defence-industrial elite as they are pretty much one and the same. Still, the tendency to let the latest whizz-bang technology do the talking for itself and to compete with each other is self-defeating and reinforces the tendency to defence-cost inflation and unacceptably long delivery cycles.
Unsuspecting European governments are soon going to have to face a massive defence re-investment challenge if they are to a) maintain their defences; and b) maintain their defences through a modernised and re-balanced NATO. This will come a) as a shock; and b) sooner than any of them think. It is therefore vital that right now the defence industry as an industry considers not just their own bottom-lines, but how the defence of Europe could look in ten, fifteen, and twenty years’ time. They will as a group also need to consider how they can best help equip Europeans as part of the coming twenty-first century strategic transatlantic contract. This can be best described as the continued American-led defence of Europe in return for European support for America’s enduring global grand stability mission.
All of the above will not only require a new relationship in Europe between power, technology and money. It will require industry to talk strategy and affordability as well as technology. Things are about to change round here big time…or we Europeans simply give in and appease reality.