Missile Defence, Europe and the New Cold War

by Dave Webb
Vice-Chair, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

April 17, 2009

Before I start I would like to thank our hosts and the organisers of the conference for inviting us here and taking such good care of us. I’d also like to thank the translators for all their hard work it is much appreciated and, of course, extremely useful. 

I want to give here an overview of the current position regarding the proposed US missile defence systems in Europe and its effect on Russia and possible implications for NATO policy.

Czech Republic

We all know now that the Czech government fell at the end of March and we also know that the marvellous campaign against the missile defence radar was partly responsible. The opposition Social Democrat Party realised that the three-party coalition government was in a vulnerable position when withdrew the treaties on the agreement to host the US radar because it was probably going to lose the vote. The Social Democrats strongly oppose the radar. Although this withdrawal may only be temporary it marked a remarkable victory for the campaign against the radar and is an example of how effective a campaign of protest can be and it is an inspiration to all of us working to free ourselves from the grip of the military, from the crazy idea of missile defence and the dangerous militarisation of space that threatens the destruction of the planet.

Just a few weeks before the fall of the government 3 bus loads of mayors from the ‘League of Mayors against the Radar’ arrived in Brussels to meet with and explain their protest to Members of the European Parliament. The delegation represented 130 Czech mayors who publicly oppose the project and they were supported by 13 of the total 14 heads of regional governments as well as many mayors from other European countries. Polls have consistently shown that around 70% of Czech citizens do not want the radar in their country – and this is despite their government’s continued attempt to convince them that it is desirable. 100,000 people have also signed a petition calling for a referendum on the issue – something the government are unlikely to support because they know they would lose. The Czech people do not want another foreign military base in their country. It is because of the determination and persistence of the protest movement that the parliamentary opposition has continued to resist US plans to impose a Star Wars system on their country.

The (ex) Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek remains in favour of the radar and did suggest that a new vote might be held after the recent NATO Strasbourg summit. Directly after that summit President Obama visited Prague and the people were out once again, demonstrating their opposition to missile defence. Even so, the US President told a crowd of about 20,000 gathered in the square next to Prague Castle that:

"As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defence system that is cost-effective and proven … Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbours and our allies."

But who are the people who will advise the President on whether Iran poses a threat? The same ones who said that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons? Or that Sadam Hussain helped the 9/11 terrorists?  And who will tell him whether missile defence works or not - The Missile Defence Agency, the Boeing Corporation?

Even though Topolanek championed the radar in his country, cutting the deal was not smooth sailing. Before he signed the agreement with Condoleezza Rice in Prague in July 2008, negotiations had reportedly faced several difficulties. These included NATO's future role; access to US research; a role in developing missile defence technology; environmental protection and the legal status of US troops at the base. Problems such as these (and more) are experienced regularly at US bases around the world and signing agreements has not solved them in the past.


The other component of the Bush proposal for a European missile defence system, the plan to place 10 interceptors in Poland has also faced problems. It too does not have the support of the citizens of the host country. The majority of people in Poland remain unconvinced by the propaganda and are not in favour of the missile base. In addition, the centre-left government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk are not as keen on the issue as the previous government, which lost power in October 2007. There is concern over Russia’s statement that it will aim its nuclear missiles at Poland if American interceptors are placed there. The Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich requested greater security guarantees and identified 17 areas where the US would have to help the Polish military – including the establishment of Patriot anti-missiles for short- to medium-range air defences and a garrison of around 100 US military personnel. Prime Minister Tusk also argues that the missile defence site should eventually be just a part of a wider NATO and European system. At one time it looked like an agreement might not be achieved and the US started talks with Lithuania as a possible alternative. However, worries over the Russia and Georgia situation did see a momentary rise in support for missile defence and the US and Poland did sign an agreement in August 2008 although it is not clear when parliament might be asked to ratify the deal. In the meantime statements that the plan could be abandoned in order to improve relations between Russia and the US led President Kaczynski to say that if the US were to scrap the project it would "not be a friendly gesture" toward Poland. He also said that this possibility "raises the question of whether the victim of such an agreement should be a very loyal ally like Poland" – reminding the US of the support that Warsaw has given the US in recent years, having contributed troops to the Iraq war and sent some 1,600 soldiers to the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

It is still not clear how this third site in Europe will develop. Just a few days ago a pre-budget briefing by the Pentagon did not include construction or deployment money for the sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. There is though continued funding for Research and Development and the line between that and deployment is often thin and sometimes blurred. The details also need to be confirmed when the President presents his full budget to Congress in late April or early May.

The UK

The siting of US bases in Europe is undemocratic and promotes division within the European community. The states involved are not consulting their neighbours about the issue and are ignoring the wishes of their citizens. In the UK permission has already been granted for the US to use 2 bases in North Yorkshire for missile defence. These are the phased array tracking radar system at Fylingdales and the receiving dishes at the US Menwith Hill electronic interception base. The UK first received an offer of participation in Missile Defence just after the US pulled out of the ABM Treaty towards the end of 2002. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked for permission to use the ballistic missile early warning radar at Fylingdales for missile defence. This request by the US had been expected for some time but the issue was never debated in the House of Commons. The public were given a tiny opportunity to register their views with the MoD over the Christmas holidays in 2002 and just a few weeks later the government announced, unsurprisingly, that the US had been granted permission. An agreement with the Bush Administration was signed in October 2004. The House of Commons was informed through a Written Statement which prompted some anger from Defence Select Committee:

“Despite the Secretary of State's unequivocal statement that he wanted the decision to be informed by public and parliamentary discussion, he has acted in a way that has effectively curtailed such discussions”.

Even at that time it was known that the US spy base at Menwith Hill would be used for missile defence. In fact the Ministry of Defence had issued a statement as long ago as 1997 to say that they were:

“pleased to announce that the European Relay Ground Station (RGS-E) for the new Space Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS) will be established at RAF Menwith Hill.

SBIRS was to be an integral part of the US Missile Defence plan acting as a space based system to give early warning of missile launches and detailed information about the missile’s trajectory. Two receiving dishes for SBIRS were in fact built even before the US gave notice to withdraw from the ABM Treaty with Russia. However, the UK government repeatedly refused to admit that this was a missile defence role until they announced in July 2007 that the US had been given permission to use it for jus that. No chance for the public, or anyone else, to be consulted this time.

Also, in his usual US friendly manner, Prime Minister Tony Blair offered (almost begged) to host US interceptors in the UK. It was the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee who was angry this time, saying:

“We regret the manner and timing of the Government's announcement that RAF Menwith Hill is to participate in the US ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, and the resulting lack of Parliamentary debate on the issue... We recommend that there should be a full Parliamentary debate on these proposals.”

There was no discussion or debate in the House of Commons. However, a debate in the House of Lords begun by Lord Wallace enabled him to comment that he hoped the Government would be shamed into providing a "fuller and more detailed justification of its decision." They haven’t and polls show that the British public have also been consistently opposed to missile defence – with some 60% saying they do not think missile defence adds to our security and that they do not want the US bases in the UK.

So, despite the controversy surrounding this issue, there has been little discussion and exchange of views in the parliaments of Europe. Not only that but countries are making their own decisions without consultation with their European partners, despite the fact that all European countries will be affected by the decision of any individual state to participate.

No country in Europe is worried about a threat from immediate missile attack. We are continually told though that Iran is developing long range missiles and nuclear weapons that will be bale to reach us in 5-10 years time. It is worth remembering that, back in February 2002, William Cohen, the US defence secretary was reported as saying the same thing during a speech in Munich. He said then that the US needed go ahead with their missile defence plans because North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya:

“want long range missiles to coerce and threaten us – the North American and European parts of NATO.” “We project that in the next 5 to 10 years these rogue countries will be bale to hold all of NATO at risk with their missile forces”

Now we know that no sign of nuclear weapons were discovered in Iraq; Libya abandoned its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 following diplomatic negotiations with the US and Britain; and in 2007, after 4 years of protracted six party talks, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for aid and improved relations with the US and Japan (although it is still accused of testing long range missiles via satellite launches). So, almost ten years after that statement 3 of the 4 threats no longer exist. And yet we are being told again that in another 10 years the remaining ‘rogue’ - Iran - may have the ability to fire a long range nuclear missile towards Europe or the US. This is despite the fact that, in December 2007, US intelligence officials concluded that Iran had probably halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.


Let’s consider now the view from Russia. It sees the establishment of US missile defence in Europe as a military expansion of bases and missiles close to its borders, in former Warsaw Pact countries. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has strongly criticized NATO's eastward expansion and the failure by Western powers to keep their promise not to deploy military bases near Russia's borders he reminded us that NATO countries had pledged after Germany's reunification in 1990 that

"NATO would not move a centimeter to the east."

If the threat is really from Iran why aren’t the interceptors stationed in Turkey and the radar in Azerbaijan - as suggested by Russia? Russia remains convinced that the US is targeting their silos and not those of Iran. The Pentagon denies this, and says that the interceptors could not catch missiles fired from Russian silos but calculations by US missile expert Ted Postol indicate that they have overestimated the velocity of Russian missiles and underestimated that of US interceptors. This, together with fears that many more interceptors would follow, leads to concerns about the strategic balance of nuclear weapons. NATO talks about its role in terms of R2P - the “Right to Protect” – but missile defence can be seen as another form of R2P - a “Reason to Proliferate.” The development of an effective missile shield would lead to a new arms race. A bigger shield enables you to wield your sword with more confidence that there can be no successful retaliation - therefore the opposition swords grow bigger … and so on.

The Russians (and others) would also be worried about an additional aggressive use of missile defence. When the US shot down a ‘rogue’ satellite with their ship based missile defence system it clearly demonstrated the anti-satellite capability of the system and opened up once again all the possible consequences of an arms race in outer space.


It also appears that further steps will then be taken to integrate this strategic US National Missile Defence system with NATO's Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence Programme (ALTBMD) which is designed, at a cost of some 20 billion euros, to protect deployed forces within or outside NATO territory against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. NATO leaders agreed to endorse the US plan in April last year at their Bucharest summit in 2008.. The NATO-funded command and control "backbone" will integrate US missiles with other components of Germany, Italy and France and various ground, air and space-based sensors and communication systems provided by several NATO nations. The ALTBMD is scheduled to become partly operational next year and fully operational by 2016 and last year a special NATO testing facility was opened in The Hague.

NATO does face some problems with this however. The Missile Defence Feasibility Study was conducted before the plans for the US European Site were announced. They will have to fit the US European Site into a NATO system and provide coverage for the whole of Europe. With missile defence there is very little time for decision-making. It takes less than half an hour for an ICBM to travel to the other side of the planet, there is no time to convene a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to make a joint decision on what to do. Therefore, new rules of engagement are required - specific procedures are needed to authorise commanders to take responsibility and make decisions under circumstances agreed in advance. Delegating decision-making powers of this nature to supranational commanders are unprecedented in NATO.

In order to provide a cover for all of Europe (as specified at the Bucharest summit), NATO’s ALTBMD will need to be re-directed but ALTBMD systems are mostly terminal-phase interception systems and cover very limited areas. To obtain complete coverage would require too many extra platforms. A February 2009 study by the US Congressional Budget Office on “Options for Deploying Missile Defence in Europe” looked at 4 different options for a European system using the available technology of NATO and US systems. None of them could offer full coverage of Europe.

Concluding Remarks

Although President Obama appears to be cooler than Bush to missile defence, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who remains in office under Obama, is a strong supporter of missile defense and the new president has said he supports missile defense in general and, despite fine words and a stated aim of moving to zero, real concrete steps have yet to be made.

I think we also need to ask the question – “even if missile defence were to work would it be desirable?” The problem is that focussing on missile defence inevitably means that other methods of persuasion, such as diplomacy and negotiation are neglected. NATO is a military alliance and therefore focuses on military solutions to problems. Missile defence is a high tech military solution. Such solutions are extremely costly in many ways. Apart from the escalating financial implications, which may now be regarded as unsustainable, there are significant costs to the reputation of the US, NATO and Europe. In recent years the power of argument, diplomacy and example has given way to control by dominance and “shock and awe.”

There is universal agreement that the two biggest problems the world faces at the moment are climate change and the global economic crisis. At an emergency summit in March in Copenhagen, 2,500 climate experts agreed that climate change might surpass the worst-case scenarios outlined in the 2007 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the same event, Nicholas Stern, economist and author of The Stern Report on Climate Change, said he had "underestimated the climate crisis." Scientists are discovering new mechanisms that accelerate climate change all the time.

In addition, a recent preliminary report published by a UN commission of experts on reforms of the international monetary and financial system, focuses on the impact of the global financial crisis on developing countries and the poor. An estimated 50 million more people will be unemployed in 2009 than in 2007. Some 200 million people, mostly in developing economies, could be pushed into poverty if rapid action is not taken to counter the impact of the crisis.

Missile Defense will not be able to contribute at all to solving these problems.

However, we can be sure that through all this the ‘haves” will protect themselves first. The “have-nots” will be forgotten or even sacrificed. It seems likely that NATO and the so called developed countries of the West will consider these problems in terms of “threats” and thereby think only in terms of how to use military force to control the large numbers of refugees forced from their homes by drought, and flooding. Poverty, hunger and desperation are likely to lead to clashes between different ethnic and social groups. Military ways of thinking  will concentrate on protecting those in power, deciding which groups to support and which to constrain. 

This is a tragic and horrific scenario that we must prevent. The solution to these global problems requires a new global vision and collective responsibility and action. We have the opportunity now to develop new ways of thinking and acting - it is time to develop ideas in terms of collective security rather than collective defence and to ensure that the collective security must be firmly centred on human beings.

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