Passing the Buck on Missile Defense

How far is Washington willing to go to keep Europe protected?

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A German military truck carrying NATO's Patriot Missile Defense System to protect Turkey in case neighboring Syria launches an attack passes by a mosque as they leave the port in the Mediterranean city of Iskenderun, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. The German Patriot Systems and troops were heading for Kahramanmaras to prepare to operate a defensive missile system close to the border with Syria.

Can the United States count on its NATO allies to share the burden of missile defense? That's the question irking more than a few watchers of Europe and defense policy within the Washington Beltway.

This past September marked the one year anniversary of the Berlin NATO conference – a relatively-unheard of discussion that brought together some 100 senior military and civilian government officials from nine nations in 2012 to discuss naval ballistic missile defense capabilities.

That meeting generated lofty goals of Alliance defense and earnest claims from NATO officials that their countries were fully committed to joint ballistic missile defense work with the United States. And yet, more than a year on, precious little of this cooperation has materialized.

No publicized major joint research endeavors have been codified. No proposed defensive groundwork has been put forward or any mutual agreements on codevelopment signed. In fact, there has been no tangible evidence at all to show that Europe considers ballistic missile defense a top priority.

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If anything, the relative silence suggests that NATO allies are more interested in passing the buck to someone else.

After agreeing to include missile defense as a cornerstone to the NATO alliance, NATO announced several key "contributions," including the hosting of U.S. missile defense assets by Spain and Romania, among other states. But the real burdens were left to the United States. 

America, for example, is being expected to foot the bill for the "Aegis Ashore" missile defense site to be located in Romania. Costs for the initiative have been skyrocketing, soaring from the early estimate of $400 million to about $800 million today. Spain, meanwhile, is poised to receive a handout of some $260 million for hosting U.S. Aegis warships after it decided not to upgrade its five Aegis compatible ships to include missile defense capabilities.

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Germany, the largest economy in Europe, has done a bit more. Berlin now hosts the NATO missile defense command and control center in Ramstein and funds a quarter of costs associated with the U.S.-German-Italian Medium Extended Area Defense System, or MEADS. It has also supplied two short range PAC-3s to Turkey to date. But declining fortunes for MEADS, and a moribund NATO missile defense architecture suggest a smaller role for Germany in missile defense in the future.

Poland and France, too, have shown initiative, with each opting for the development of its own missile defense system. Beyond that, however, NATO nations seem content to leave most of the heavy lifting to the United States.

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Washington is thus faced with a difficult question: How far is it willing to go to keep NATO protected? With shrinking defense budgets and still more European nations dropping far below the NATO-mandated 2 percent defense spending minimum, the U.S. could be left footing an increasingly expensive bill. Already covering more than three-fourths of NATO's overall expenditures and faced with its own domestic budget burdens, the United States could well lose interest, focusing instead on allies such as South Korea, Japan and Israel, which are more willing to share the cost burdens.

NATO has the power to get back on track. For example, if just half of the eight European states present at last year's Berlin conference upgraded one ship to include a missile defense capacity, it would effectively double NATO's existing sea-based defenses. But regardless of what system its members select, NATO as a whole needs to lay the groundwork for sustained, long-term national contributions. 

If it does not, the grim warning once issued by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that America will lose its "appetite" for supporting an alliance whose members do not share in its risks or costs, might very well come to pass.

Harrison Menke is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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