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The potential unintended consequences of missile defence in Europe

Missile defence in Europe is currently a hotly debated topic in international security. It has animated discussions and raised issues at multiple levels, including ramifications for international relations (e.g. between the US and Russia), intra-EU relations (e.g. concerning national positions), and institutional relations (e.g. the role of NATO). Given the vast amount of debate it has spawned, it is surprising that only limited attention has been paid to the potential unintended consequences of missile defence in Europe. Looking ahead, at least three challenging elements stand out.

First, a continued development of missile defence may have implications for the peaceful use of outer space. A growing constellation of satellites – about 3,150 have been launched to date by approximately sixty nations – has created a new critical infrastructure that supports communications, navigation, and surveillance to name but a few.[1] An interruption of these and related services, even for short periods, could result in significant costs and damages. As a result, nations are keen to protect their satellites. Since the interceptors used for missile defence could theoretically be used to target satellites – especially those in low-Earth orbit – some countries are considering protective measures. Some may also consider offensive measures for retaliatory purposes. In January 2007, China demonstrated this capability by destroying one of its own obsolete weather satellites at an altitude of approximately 855 kilometres. Should some of these protective or countering measures be space-based, the militarisation of space could literally ‘take off’.

Second, missile defence measures may encourage some countries to invest greater resources in other missile types to circumvent an evolving missile shield. One example is short-range missiles such as cruise missiles. If launched from sea-based platforms close to the target area, ballistic missile interceptors would offer no help. Protecting against low-altitude cruise missiles places a premium on radars and theatre-level defence systems. Unfortunately, achieving such protection is a challenging undertaking. For the US alone, ‘cruise missile gaps’ have been identified up to 2015.[2] If actors of concern decide to invest in asymmetric means such as cruise missiles, it could gradually undermine missile defence efforts and possibly increase vulnerabilities.

Finally, China (and not Russia) may turn out to be the most concerned by an evolving missile defence system – especially if it becomes part of a multilayered system made up of sea-based and space-based missile defences. With approximately twenty long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (DF-5/CSS), China may perceive its nuclear deterrent weakening. The missile defence system based in the United States, coupled with a European system, could be perceived as blocking its missiles – irrespective of the launch trajectory chosen. In response, China may consider steps ranging from levelling political objections to boosting its arsenal of missiles. The latter might fuel arms races in parts of Asia – an additional unintended, and undesirable, consequence.

EUISS Newsletter nº 23

[1]  Duncan Lennox, ‘Launching out’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 28 March 2007.
[2]  John Liang, ‘DoD Finds Cruise Missile Defense “Gaps”’, InsideDefense.com, 17 August 2006.