Improving Ballistic Missile Defence Interoperability

By Cadet

By Cadet



, US


 December 2019
Warfare Domains: Air Operations
Subject Areas: Air & Missile Defence


NATO leaders announced at the 2010 Lisbon Summit that the Alliance would expand its Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) capabilities ‘to provide full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory, and forces’.1 This shield will eventually span all NATO European territory and must be capable of reacting to threats on extremely short notice. It would include a few NATO owned capabilities, such as the Ballistic Missile Defence Operations Centre (BMDOC), connected to a multitude of nationally owned sensors and interceptors, including land-, maritime-, and space-based systems. Furthermore, NATO Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) and Theatre BMD (TBMD) is only one part of the Alliance’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) mission, meaning these wide-ranging BMD capabilities must be able to operate within the NATO IAMD System (NATINAMDS) as well. Considering these issues, interoperability in BMD is critical for crisis management and the collective defence of the Alliance.

This article begins by outlining the desired end state for NATO BMD interoperability, continues by exploring the current state of the capability, and finishes by recommending some ways in which NATO can evolve to achieve this end state. NATO BMD has already declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC) and is slowly growing as more nations contribute sensors and interceptors, and interoperability is key for effectively utilizing these platforms. NATO BMD will develop better if the Alliance focuses on the three dimensions of interoperability: technological, procedural, and human. First, member states should purchase platforms that can technologically interoperate with other NATO IAMD platforms and should emphasize the multinational procurement of new BMD assets. Second, NATO should incorporate more strategic level BMD considerations into multinational IAMD exercises and should standardize procedural aspects of BMD, especially the coordination with TBMD. Third, NATO should facilitate the acculturation of BMD personnel through BMD and IAMD courses, summits, and conferences. By focusing on these areas, NATO can move from its current state to an end state that ensures a BMD system that maximizes the effectiveness of platforms under its command and operates as a key contributor within NATINAMDS.

Desired End State

The 2016 Warsaw Summit Communiqué reaffirms the aim of NATO missile defence in general as ‘full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory, and forces.’2 However, this article focuses specifically on the interoperability aspect of NATO BMD. The end state for this particular context has not been comprehensively defined by NATO; however, one can conclude that it must be flexible enough to match the improving capabilities of NATO BMD as the Alliance moves closer to full coverage and that it must be appropriate for the current and near future BMD-related threats in an IAMD environment. That being the case, this article defines the desired end state as a NATO BMD system mature and robust enough to fully utilize all available sensors and interceptors and operate fluidly as part of NATINAMDS.

Current State

Command and Control

Announcements within the past decade about the NATO BMD Command and Control (C2) structure provide one element by which to gauge the current state of BMD interoperability. While C2 is important for all operations, it is particularly vital for BMD to properly function, as sensors and interceptors are nationally owned and spread across vast geographical distances. At the 2012 Chicago Summit, just two years after announcing the decision to pursue Alliance-wide BMD coverage,3 NATO leaders announced that Interim Ballistic Missile Defence Capability had been achieved. Part of this achievement included the installation and testing of C2 capabilities at Headquarters Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany.4 Four years later at the Warsaw Summit, Alliance leaders announced that NATO BMD had reached IOC, part of which would include the transfer of C2 for the new US Aegis Ashore site in Romania to NATO.5 Additionally, Spain currently hosts four US Aegis ships, Turkey hosts a US missile defence radar system, the Netherlands and Denmark have decided to procure radar-equipped frigates, the UK is investing in a ground-based radar system, and Poland has agreed to base a US Aegis Ashore system.6 Each of these contributions are currently part of or planned to be part of NATO BMD.

Interoperable Technology

Another area of concern for NATO BMD is the procurement of interoperable technology. To better provide for crisis management and collective defence, Allies should ensure their BMD platforms have the technical ability to interoperate as part of NATINAMDS. Most NATO members have continued to purchase sensors and interceptors that can work as part of the Alliance BMD structure. Even systems intended for national use can also be used by NATO when needed, and interoperable systems simplify this process. For example, since 2013 Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States have all provided short-term augmentation to NATO BMD capabilities in Turkey by providing PATRIOT and ASTER SAMP/T batteries, which are plugged into Allied Air Command at Ramstein, to defend against Syrian short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats. These assets are provided temporarily, and will afterwards return to national use.7 NATO leaders have recently raised alarm, however, about Turkey’s purchase of four S-400 batteries from Russia. Unlike the PATRIOT or ASTER SAMP/T, the S-400 will likely not be allowed to integrate into the NATO missile defence structure. This raises concern over the implication of NATO members procuring platforms that will not be permitted to plug into NATINAMDS and has led to unease among some NATO members.8

Multinational Exercises

A third element comprising current BMD interoperability is the relevance of exercises conducted by NATO or by groups of member states. A number of exercises related to BMD currently exist, some of which include Joint Project Optic Windmill (JPOW), Steadfast Alliance, Steadfast Armor, and Nimble Titan. JPOW is especially notable because it offers the opportunity to experiment and develop new methods of employing missile defence, which has led to the development of new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and NATO doctrine.9 These exercises, however, are mainly limited to the tactical and operational levels of conflict and lack strategic focus, despite BMD being a primarily strategic mission.

Lines of Effort

NATO doctrine defines three dimensions of interoperability: technological, procedural, and human.10


One way to improve interoperability is for nations to purchase systems that are technologically capable of interoperating with one another. This does not mean that all member states must acquire the same equipment, as NATO doctrine clarifies, ‘Interoperability does not necessarily require common military equipment. What is important is that this equipment can share common facilities and is able to communicate with other equipment’.11 As mentioned previously, Turkey’s purchase of S-400s from Russia has raised concern among Allies, particularly the United States. Analysts worry that connecting the S-400 to other Turkish platforms, such as the F-35 could expose vulnerabilities.12 While nations are free to procure whatever military equipment they see fit, logic dictates that it is more beneficial for collective defence if Allies procure equipment with the ability to technologically interoperate within NATINAMDS.

Multinational procurement offers another avenue by which to improve technical interoperability. NATO leaders included a paragraph in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration: ‘We note the potential opportunities for cooperation on missile defence, and encourage Allies to explore possible additional voluntary national contributions, including through multinational synergies in planning, development, procurement, and deployment.’13Multinational procurement splits the research and development costs of expensive systems among Allies, and by working together to acquire and operate missile defence technology, involved parties can maximize usage and share technical expertise.


Procedural interoperability could be improved by developing an IAMD exercise that incorporates multinational BMD personnel at all levels of conflict. Although JPOW and other exercises involve multiple NATO and partner-nations and are effective at training multinational personnel to work together at the tactical and operational levels, they do not receive enough consideration from the upper levels of military-political leadership. BMD is primarily a strategic problem, meaning leaders at that level must also get involved during relevant multinational BMD exercises.14 One useful avenue to gain this experience are BMD Distinguished Visitor programs, which are currently conducted to inform and educate political and military leadership.

From threat identification to interceptor firing, the BMD mission involves all levels and incorporates both NATO and national systems. The ability to seamlessly transition thus requires standardizing aspects of procedural interoperability, such as shared TTPs and a common language. Exercises, JPOW in particular, have led to the development of TTPs, but care must be taken to ensure these remain up-to-date and applicable to the most current threat assessments determined by NATO. To better integrate BMD throughout Alliance IAMD, NATO must develop sufficient guidance and publish Standardization Agreements (STANAG) to allow for better integration and a list of common acronyms related to BMD. Doing so will simplify interoperability and thereby reduce friction during BMD operations.15


Human interoperability is critical for ensuring those serving in BMD positions can work together while spread across the entire NATO European territory. Acculturation into the BMD mission allows personnel to better operate with one another. NATO needs to increase opportunities for BMD personnel to attend exercises, summits, and courses, such as the NATO Ballistic Missile Defence Course and the Surface Based Air Defence course at the NATO School in Oberammergau. Providing opportunities for NATO to come together can enable better communication and understanding of how different nations operate. Two researchers at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute warned that ‘given differing threat perceptions and declining defence budgets, it seems very likely that tangible Alliance contributions, in the form of sensors and interceptors, in particular, will remain minimal over the next decade.’16 Better communication and understanding can help bridge this gap in perceptions, thus allowing NATO BMD to interoperate more effectively through the Alliance.


NATO BMD is currently in a phase of expansion, as Allies continue to contribute sensors and interceptors until full coverage is achieved. Interoperability is key for proper function of NATO BMD due to its unique nature, as defined by the geographical dispersion of platforms, the national ownership of hardware, and BMD’s role within NATO IAMD. By focusing on the technological, procedural, and human aspects of interoperability, NATO can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its BMD assets. Specifically, this should involve the purchase of technologically interoperable systems as well as increasing multinational procurements. Additionally, member states should ensure the strategic level is appropriately involved during BMD exercises. Also, the Alliance should publish more guidance to procedurally standardize NATO BMD. Lastly, NATO leadership should support providing means, such as courses and exercises, to acculturate personnel into the NATO BMD mission. Doing so will drive NATO BMD interoperability to the point that the Alliance is maximizing the utility of its platforms and seamlessly operating within NATO IAMD.

Lisbon Summit Declaration. 20 Nov. 2010.
Warsaw Summit Communiqué. 9 Jul. 2016.
Lisbon Summit Declaration.
Chicago Summit Declaration. 20 May 2012.
Warsaw Summit Communiqué.
‘Ballistic Missile Defence,’ (15 May 2018),, accessed 6 Jul. 2018.
NATO Public Diplomacy Division, ‘Augmentation of Turkey’s Air Defence,’ (Jan. 2017),, accessed 9 Jul. 2018.
Reuters Staff, ‘U.S.’s Pompeo Presses Turkey on S-400 Missiles Purchase from Russia’, Reuters (27 Apr. 2018),, accessed 4 Jul. 2018.
Andreas Schmidt (JAPCC Ballistic Missile Defense Subject Matter Expert) in interview with author, 5 Jul. 2018.
NATO Standardization Office. ‘NATO Standard AJP-01 Allied Joint Doctrine’ (Feb. 2017).
NATO Public Diplomacy Division. ‘Backgrounder: Interoperability for Joint Operations’ (Jul. 2006).
Valerie Insinna. ‘US Official: If Turkey Buys Russian Systems, They Can’t Plug into NATO Tech,’ Defense News, (16 Nov. 2017),, accessed 6 Jul. 2018.
Wales Summit Declaration, 5 Sep. 2014.
Interview with Andreas Schmidt.
Steven Whitmore and John Deni, NATO Missile Defense and the European Phased Adaptive Approach: The Implications of Burden Sharing and the Underappreciated Role of the US Army (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: United States Army War College Press, 2013).
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Cadet First Class Richard King is currently attending his final year at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he is majoring in Military and Strategic Studies and minoring in German. He spent summer 2018 at the JAPCC conducting interviews and doing research about the role of NATO IAMD in Alliance cohesion. During the course of researching this article, he met with representatives from the Competence Centre for Surface-Based Air and Missile Defence, US Air Forces – Europe, the European Integrated Air and Missile Defense Center, 10 AAMDC, NATO Allied Air Command, CTF-64 and the 603rd Air Operations Center.

Information provided is current as of December 2019

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