Despite many UN resolutions, an ongoing series of North Korean missile tests have recently alarmed the world. Effective media propaganda, provocative performance displays, and the apparently unpredictable government are raising concerns about appropriate preventive measures. This escalation challenges the US in particular because of its role as a protective power in the North Pacific region. Moreover, US territory has come inside the effective range of such long-range ballistic missiles (BM).1 The geographically distant European nations and their close allies might feel safe in regard to this scenario. However, similar weapons also undoubtedly exist in Europe’s southern and south-eastern periphery. In fact, a number of states in the eastern Mediterranean and its adjacent regions meanwhile possess modern BM, whose advanced technology and extended ranges increase the probability of threats from more distant regions.2 If these weapons get into the wrong hands, the call for precautionary measures would suddenly be omnipresent.
At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Heads of States and Governments committed to providing armed forces with sufficient and sustained resources for defending NATO territory and populations in a high-intensity conflict. With that in mind, national contributions to Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) are crucial to support the Alliance’s collective defence effort. From a European perspective, this means providing NATO with a self-sufficient European BMD capability. Consequently, provisions with respect to a flexible and effective BMD capability based in Europe, to include an easy to redeploy shipborne solution, are no vague, futuristic project but part of a responsible defence posture.
NATO’s BMD Dependence on the US
The development of a NATO ‘missile defence system’ has been discussed since the early 21st century. At the 2010 Lisbon Summit, it was decided to build up a defence capability for the whole Alliance territory (NATO BMD).3 Since the 2012 Chicago Summit, NATO has been running the BMD Operation Centre (BMDOC) at Ramstein, with Germany providing infrastructure and expertise. Voluntary contributions from Nations include stationing of sensors or intercept missiles (PATRIOT systems)4 for the lower layer, i.e. for shorter range BMD engaging targets well inside the Earth’s atmosphere.
As part of its ‘European Phased Adaptive Approach’ (EPAA) programme, the US is still the only provider of land-based and ship-based effectors for defence against long-range BM in the upper layer, i.e. outside the atmosphere.5 According to current knowledge, this is the most effective way to counter BM. None of the European national armed forces currently possess any comparable capability.
The US Navy thus provides four US Navy AEGIS destroyers6 stationed in Rota, Spain, and equipped with Raytheon’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3). If necessary, these destroyers could provide a limited BMD umbrella to protect European and Israeli territory from BM attacks, potentially including Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). However, the US commitment to Europe may decrease, or capacities could be shifted to the Pacific depending on the situation. The current US administration, therefore, demands Europe, especially the economically strong nations, to contribute more capabilities for the defence of their region. While there is broad consensus among European nations about this requirement, the initiation of concrete measures to achieve the goal is apparently lagging behind, due to limited budgets and the previously perceived willingness of the US to take the precautions necessary for Europe.
German Contribution to Integrated Air Missile Defence
While the German Air Force is well equipped in the lower layer BM intercept level (or lower tier in US terminology), the Bundeswehr cannot contribute directly to the defence against medium- or long-range BM outside the atmosphere. The protection of Germany or an ally against such a threat is foreseeably dependent on the US to provide EPAA resources. However, the German Navy can contribute to the protection of naval units with its SACHSEN class (F124) frigates and Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) effectors to provide advanced air defence (AD), which encompasses short-range missile threats. This was convincingly demonstrated in former ‘Cooperative Deployments’ with US carrier battle groups including AEGIS ships operating in their BMD role. An upgrade of the F124 class’s obsolete SMART-L radar system7 is furthermore planned on the mid-term to achieve a BMD sensor capability. This will allow Germany to provide a substantial sensor contribution for early warning and target pre-assignment against BM in the upper layer. This BMD spotter capability could be expected in five to six years at the earliest (first modified F124).
However, German defence planning does not foresee the development of a capability to engage BM outside the atmosphere (F124 or successor as shooter), since there has been no specific political guidance. Even if such political will was expressed right now, this capability could not be achieved earlier than in the mid-2020s. Nonetheless, for years, the German Navy has paid considerable attention to the further development of sea-based BMD. In relevant international panels and conferences, Germany has not only supported sensor development but also – at least in the long-term – encouraged building-up a maritime European BMD capability.
At the 2014 Summit in Wales, Germany above all favoured the Framework Nations Concept (FNC) for a capability build-up in areas (‘clusters’). The principal idea of the FNC is that individual Nations or single services take up the initiative and bear the main burden – or provide the framework – for the delivery and further development of certain capabilities. Since April 2015, the German Navy has taken leadership of ‘Upper Layer BMD’, which is a sub-cluster to the overall ‘Air & Missile Defence’ (AMD) cluster coordinated by the German Air Force. Cooperation partners in ‘Upper Layer BMD’ are Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
During the ‘At Sea Demo 2015’, which was planned and directed by the Maritime Theatre Missile Defence Forum (MTMD-F)8 and following a German-Dutch operational concept, units from eight nations tested for the first time in European waters a coordinated AD and BMD against targets in the upper layer. The German Navy participated with a number of field grade officers and manned the Chief of Staff position. In May 2017, Germany took over the MTMD-F lead for another sea-based BMD exercise (FORMIDABLE SHIELD) which took place in autumn 2017 in the area of the northern flank, again with corresponding German design and participation.
Suggestions for a European Sea-based Shooter Contribution
With regard to developing an affordable European contribution with maritime BMD shooters, one should discuss different options up to and including the leasing of intercept missiles. In particular, it would be worth considering a European missile pool with reasonable capacity that is also available for the US Navy. European allies such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain, together with the US, could provide enough sea-based BMD capacity for the Mediterranean, taking the four deployed US Navy AEGIS destroyers into account and presuming the six aforementioned European navies would altogether come up with six BMD frigates. Keeping the permanent operational duties of the European navies in mind, the call for this number of ships equipped for the BMD shooter role should be seen as appropriate (one per nation on average, or fewer nations sharing the cost of more than one). With a pool of ten total ships, the US and European forces could maintain a permanent presence of up to four BMD shooters in the Mediterranean area with a common stock of intercept missiles, while respecting a rotation cycle of mission, maintenance, and mission preparation.
Recommendations and Outlook
The Alliance’s planning objectives include the build-up of BMD capabilities under the principle of burden sharing. There are a number of NATO activities, concepts, and decisions pursuing this goal and the German Navy has a significant contribution to conceptual and tactical developments in the area of sea-based BMD. Its leading role in the FNC (subcluster Upper Layer BMD) is appreciated among nations and within NATO. With the SMART L ELR radar9 implemented on the Royal Netherlands Navy’s frigates starting in 2018/2019 and the later sensor upgrade on the German F124, there will be for the first time self-reliant European sensor capabilities available for the acquisition of BM targets in the upper intercept layer.
Meanwhile, the current security environment and future trends underline the necessity of maritime BMD shooters. ‘Persuasive’ efforts are required in this regard to achieve tangible impetus from the political leadership, because without political will the shooter option remains infeasible. In many European countries, to include Germany, public support, and therefore the politicians’ appetite for investing in new armament are rather low. Here, one should develop the basic understanding that AD and BMD capabilities – with or without shooter – are defensive by design and, hence, functionally reactive. Developing NATO BMD is therefore not an aggressive action and, in particular, not an offensive threat directed against Russia. However, current NATO-agreed threat estimates indicate that – apart from other perceived threat directions – BMD precautions are also necessary in regard to that military potential. For most of the related questions, one should seek broad consensus at the political and military level not only nationally but also with the allied nations, who are all facing the same challenges.
Because of the expected cost implications, Nations should cooperate from the outset with selected European partners, who already have specially designed anti-air warfare frigates equipped with respective sensor technology and shooter upgrade options (or will introduce these in the foreseeable future). Because of the broad BM threat spectrum and massive cost of capability development, BMD in Europe cannot be a purely national endeavour. Also, one should prefer the procurement of already developed and introduced technology fulfilling the requirement. In fact, the SM-3 is an already available intercept missile for the upper layer, which over many years has well proven its functional and operational capability in over 30 test firings at and from the sea. Investment in SM-3 might be the swiftest and most expeditious way to acquire a full BMD capability for the European NATO Nations.