Air and missile defence in Europe: building a consensus


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Luc Dini
Luc Dini

Director of Business Development Missile Defense, Thales

With growing asymmetrical threats, Europeans need to set aside their differences and find consensus on an integrated missile defence while preserving the sovereignty of their airspace and territory. The options are as many as the threats themselves, and are all facing intense financial pressures and lively debate.

How are we to tackle the so-called “air-breathing” threats as well as the ballistic threats; with a dual Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD), or solely an anti-ballistic missile defence (BMD)? And then how should we balance collective and national contributions – including industry participation – and cope with defence budget pressures and deficit controls. These are big challenges!

The NATO Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) has been developed step-by-step since 2006, and operational since 2010. Its objective is to build multiple layers of defence to protect troops in the theatre against the dual threat of ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 3000 km and such air-breathing threats as cruise missiles.

However, the territorial missile defence studies conducted by NATO since the early 2000s were mainly turned against a proliferating ballistic threat, from short-range to possible Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) whose range is about 10,000 km. There was no global consensus, neither on the threat spectrum nor the priorities, and there lacked the will to invest in such a highly costly defence. One prime example is the 3rd site U.S. project, which was mainly focused on the protection of the American continent and partially Europe against ICBMs.

Coming to a final consensus on this issue requires a more balanced contribution between the U.S. and European nations, including from industry as well as through contributions to NATO collective funding

Policy sharply changed with the U.S.-led European Phased Architecture Approach (EPAA) proposed in 2009 by the Obama Administration. This was a new start for co-operation on missile defence in Europe based on the mobile upper layer of the ALTBMD; it was therefore more open to synergy between U.S. systems, NATO’s Command and Control Backbone and European Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) systems. It confirmed deployment of Ground-based Missile Defence Systems in the U.S. (GMDS) while unlocking the situation with the Russians by proposing new Start Treaty discussions and reopening talks on missile defence in general.

The EPAA was an especially smart move as it changed the priority on the threat, countering first the 3000 km Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs), then the 5500 km Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs). ICBMs with a range beyond 5500 km were no longer a priority in the short term. Consensus was reached at the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, and advanced in Chicago in 2012 with the decision to operate the BMD interim capability and proceed with BMD expansion from the NATO ALTBMD. The objective was to protect all member nations’ territories and their troops from ballistic missiles while reaffirming that BMD was a complement to the nuclear deterrence of NATO’s strategic concept. Russia is also developing its own defence systems like the S400 and S500 to counter dual threats including MRBMs – without forgetting their existing capabilities designed against a first strike ICBM on its strategic command centres.

Complete consensus has, unfortunately, not yet been reached. The crisis in Syria showed a daily use of the dual threat; more than 500 short-range ballistic missiles were fired together with conventional bombs and missiles inside Syrian territory against both troops and the population. This called for the deployment of dual defence systems in Turkey close to the border. It shows that the use of such weaponry should not be taboo, as some peripheral NATO members are potentially exposed. We must also remember the asymmetrical air threat such as the September 11 scenario. Such threats are also considered in Europe, and a joint exercise was conducted between NATO members and other European countries including Russia. A consensus remains to be reached on the dual threat assumption, but the reality is there, so agreement is conceivable.

There is also not yet a developed consensus on the choice between BMD and IAMD. Theatre Missile Defence is an IAMD architecture against dual threats, a view shared by NATO and Russia leading to co-operation on TMD interoperability in the past. Moreover, the territorial BMD, as an expansion of the ALTBMD, has an intrinsic dual capability due to its command control. These lower-layer U.S. and European weapons systems and sensors can be based on land or at sea. The cornerstone is the NATO Command and Control in Ramstein, Germany with the Air Command and Control Systems (ACCS), part of the NATO Integrated Air Defence System (NATINADS). It is interfaced with the U.S. Command Control linked to the phased EPAA systems – Aegis, AN-TPY2 in Turkey. They share ballistic situational awareness, but not air capacity. It is not an IAMD architecture as long as the EPAA architecture and the NATO BMD territorial defence remain so focused on the ballistic threat. For some nations in Europe IAMD remains a must, as is Theatre Missile Defence. A consensus might be reached, sooner or later. The NATINADS is there, and the U.S. air and missile defence concept of operations also exists for other systems.

On the economic side, a return on investment is needed in Europe to sustain new development and more financing for extended-range system

Decisions were made among nations to build up missile defence systems with an integrated command under NATO responsibility and collective funding. The NATO Air Command and Control System (ACCS), then extended to ALTBMD, is developed jointly between the U.S. and Europe through Thales Raytheon Systems (a joint venture between those two companies) together with other European and U.S. industry actors. After the summit in Chicago, NATO called for more co-operation between nations for in-kind contributions.

Coming to a final consensus on this issue requires a more balanced contribution between the U.S. and European nations, including from industry as well as through contributions to NATO collective funding. 2% of GDP is also a goal for defence efforts expressed at the NATO summit in Wales last September. At a time when defence budgets are already under strong pressure, this is not easy. If the U.S. invested about $2-3bn in the EPAA, which is very meaningful, some European nations then also invested billions of euros into systems which are now operational or in development. For example, the Netherlands is developing its naval SMART-L radar early warning capability. France is similarly developing a land-based very long-range radar, and has developed a spaceborne experimental sensor called Spirale. France and Italy have also invested billions of euros in a lower-layer dual-capacity surface-to-air missile system SAMP/T, 100% European technology, based on Arabel radar and Aster missile. It was successfully tested against air-breathing targets but also a ballistic missile with NATO coordination in 2013. Further improvements of the Fire Control system and missile are planned, together with the development of new Multifunction Radar Active Electronic Antennas. Obviously, investments are continuing in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Poland, Turkey, the UK and others, who also have potential plans to upgrade or develop their own ground-based or sea-based air and missile capacities.

However, on the economic side, a return on investment is needed in Europe to sustain new development and more financing for extended-range systems. European defence officials are facing hard choices due to budget constraints while still maintaining a defence spending close to 2% of GDP, at least some of them are. They are giving priority to investment in military and civilian satellites or space launchers such as Ariane 6, while continuing huge investment in lower-layer dual systems improvement like for surface-to-air missile platforms. They are also favouring investment in naval air and missile capability.

The perception persists, whether grounded or not, that the U.S. is providing mainly U.S. solutions through foreign military sales contracts while access to the market is a real issue for the European industry, as is maintaining and developing its skills. A weak European industry is a risk for all. Without European added value and return on investment, defence investment will steadily decrease. This means, in the long run, more investment will be needed from the U.S. to maintain security, resulting in higher risks for everyone.

Co-operation between nations can be improved by networking sensors and systems.

U.S. and European defence industries are sometimes accused of fighting instead of co-operating. That may be true in some instances, but for the most part competition doesn’t prevent industry from proposing ideas to enhance the synergy of systems and magnify their overall efficiency. 

A consensus on air and missile defence based on the NATO BMD expansion dynamics is certainly reachable, but only under some conditions. There must be a shared prioritisation of the dual threat, and a corresponding capitalisation on NATO’s dual capabilities. The role of air and missile defence must be assured as a complement of deterrence for territorial defence. Synergy between U.S. and European industries must be enhanced, with value added to U.S. and European skills and equal access to the market. Finally, the synergy of systems and sensors needs to be improved, like sensor networking which remains open to other partners, as recommended by NATO leaders. This type of co-operation is open to other partners whenever the political conditions are gathered, which is not a technical or industrial matter.

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