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Refurbishing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Need for More Robust Missile Defense Systems

by Anirudh Prakash

Image: Patriot air and missile defense system on display at Allied Air Command (via NATO)

On February 24th, 2022, Russia commenced its infamous “re-invasion” of Ukraine, and for the first time, Europe is now indirectly involved with the largest conventional war since World War II. The conflict entered an especially dangerous phase of operations on November 17th, 2022, when an explosion reportedly struck Przewodow, a Polish village only six kilometers away from the Ukrainian border. With Russia barraging Ukraine with long-range missiles, experts now worry that this conflict could result in new vulnerabilities in NATO’s most contentious frontier, the Eastern Flank. In times when fears of nuclear war are imminent, the US should polish its current deterrence strategy by deploying robust regional missile defense systems in the Eastern Flan to not only protect NATO’s forward-based troops in the Eastern Flank but also to safeguard other US national interests in the theater.

The Eastern Flank of Europe has been a looming threat throughout modern history for NATO to defend against its neighboring threats. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the frontier became an even greater priority, and as a result, rose to the forefront of NATO policy. An asymmetrical defense posture for the Eastern Flank was created and thus ensued NATO’s defense prioritization for both the Baltic Sea and the Baltic States.

The defense posture encompassed deploying Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups, bolstering Baltic air policing, increasing military readiness and exercises, improving air and missile defense, and establishing an array of mission command and control headquarters. Presently, the Eastern Flank still serves as an important region for NATO to defend. The region is a rampart for NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative, and following Russia’s “re-invasion” of Ukraine in 2022 which caused a dramatic change in the landscape’s security, eight battlegroups have been garrisoned on the frontier. These units each serve and exercise together, representing a strong expression of solidarity for the alliance. Given the high strategic value imposed, the Eastern Flank continues to be a priority for the alliance to double down on.

But despite NATO’s current defenses, the region continues to be susceptible to gray-zone operations and regional missile attacks from the Russian military in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Earlier in the war, a military base in Yavoriv, Ukraine was struck by a missile attack from long-range Russian bombers flying into the country’s airspace. The incident occurred fifteen miles away from the Polish-Ukrainian border and prompted the US to deploy more troops in Poland and accelerate the shipment of air defense systems near the region. In mid-November, two deaths occurred from the Russian-incited Przewodow incident, which compelled representatives of the US-led military alliance to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels, Belgium. These acts of aggression do not exclusively threaten the Eastern Flank’s security but also paint a grim picture of a potential NATO-led intervention in the event a member state is directly inflicted by the conflict. The barrages serve as a wake-up call for NATO to reconsider its current approach on defending the Eastern Flank and refurbish its ongoing deterrence strategy.

NATO’s ballistic missile defense strategy has always been strictly defensive and contributes to the alliance’s collective defense doctrine. Its current strategy involves an Integrated Air and Missile Defense system, and under this approach, most NATO countries have bolstered ballistic missile defenses (BMD) to guard the alliance’s frontiers. This strategy, named the “air shielding mission,” is responsible for protecting every area of NATO territory. This initiative brings together disparate air and missile defense units under NATO’s command rather than relying on them in a more reactive, piecemeal fashion. However, since current policy focuses on the entire periphery of NATO territory instead of just the vulnerable Eastern Flank, the present doctrine could be directed more towards protecting it while recognizing the other frontiers secondarily. Here, the US and NATO can each collaborate on regional missile defense by supplying their current systems to their Eastern Flank allies to ensure NATO’s airspace is not infringed upon.

The US should also continue affirming its commitment to protecting NATO allies. The first way is by acknowledging the European Phased Adaptive Approach. This can be done by deploying Aegis short-ranged missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, both of which lie on the Eastern Flank and possess strategic command centers responsible for improving coordination between allied units and their commanding structures. The second way is if the Pentagon can work with NATO defense ministers to adopt the Eastern Flank Shield Initiative (EFSI). The EFSI would be a coalition involving each member country investing in missile defenses for the protection of the Eastern Flank. NATO members would appropriate a portion of their budget to missile defense and garrison some of their most sophisticated and state-of-the-art regional missile defense systems in the region. These approaches will not only improve NATO’s long-utilized missile defense doctrine, but moreover create an adequate trajectory towards reinforcing effective deterrence.

Despite all these initiatives, two caveats impede this policy approach – the cost and the alliance’s everlasting free-riding conundrum. Presumably, regional defense reform requires a substantial amount of money; for that, the US and NATO member states must contribute a significant portion of their defense budget to develop these new BMD systems. This effort is feasible, however, the question is whether most NATO countries will listen to America’s demands. Although some may be willing, others may doubt if it would be a bang for their buck. This connects with the second issue, free-riding, and how that has impacted America’s historic partnership with the alliance. Since the Wales Concept’s promulgation in 2014, a 2% spending rule was put in place for member countries. As of 2022, nine have met the threshold; the rest could not achieve the same. This lackluster effort not only impacts the initiation of these missile defense frameworks but inhibits NATO’s ability to deter imminent threats concertedly.

Yet, I am optimistic that this is a go-to recommendation for the US and NATO to pursue to protect the alliance’s most dangerous theaters. Regional missile barrages by the Russian military during the Ukraine war are a grave threat to NATO’s security and it is in its best interest to provide the most sophisticated air, sea, land, and space-based BMDs. Helping shield the most vulnerable will help shield the rest of the alliance and avoid a tragic domino effect – if one falls, others may follow suit. A robust missile defense initiative, like the EFSI, may be the vision for the future of NATO’s ballistic missile defense doctrine as the state-of-the-art coalition will be a force multiplier, not just for the Eastern Flank, but for all NATO member states.

The transatlantic environment is enmeshed with a growing amount of complex threats and uncertainties. A protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine grinds in Eastern Europe while the Baltics continue to be exposed to hybrid warfare, each intended to destabilize the other’s national security. If neither action is made, not only will our most vulnerable allies be exposed to their neighboring threats, but the alliance might eventually succumb to a new wave of threats far more precarious than those today. For the Eastern Flank to be secure and our alliance to be assured, now is the time for the US to help the NATO Avengers assemble.


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