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US dictates the geopolitics of global missile defence

One of the interesting effects of ballistic missile defence is how it has affected relations between states. The decades of tension between Moscow and Washington over strategic defence are well known. Now US ballistic missile defences (BMD) are driving China and Russia closer together.



But missile defences can also strengthen relations between countries. For example, it has become an important dimension of the revitalised Japan-US security alliance. BMD has discouraged Japan from developing its own nuclear deterrent, and induced Tokyo to broaden its defence collaboration with other countries by relaxing its arms export rules. The same pattern may arise in the Middle East, where Iran's neighbours are pondering whether missile defences can obviate their need to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. In other cases, the BMD issue has had diverse effects. South Korea, for example, has sought to benefit from US technologies without alarming China by joining the Pentagon's wider regional efforts.

The US finds itself at the heart of the politics of missile defence. Its leading role in developing and deploying BMD technologies and its network of alliances both empower and oblige the US to defend much of the world from missile attack. These same alignments also provide ties the Pentagon needs to construct a global network of BMD sensors and facilities.

For this reason, Washington has lobbied friends and allies to cooperate with US regional BMD initiatives. US officials have persuaded most allied governments that missile defences complement nuclear deterrence by causing potential aggressors to doubt that any attack could succeed, as well as providing a hedge should deterrence fail.

More than 30 countries already have, or are acquiring, short- and medium-range missiles able to deliver conventional payloads at great speed and distance. Some are trying to develop longer-range missiles armed with various weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological). The 2010 Ballistic Missile Defence Review (BMDR) predicts that missile threats to the US and its allies will grow as antagonistic states increase the size and capabilities of their ballistic missiles.

Under both the George W Bush and Obama administrations, the US has employed a variety of tools to address these threats. US officials have engaged in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in an effort to persuade North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear weapons programmes. They have also repeatedly warning these countries against developing, testing, or using these capabilities. Additionally, the US has provided security assistance to help US allies enhance their own defence capabilities.

The Pentagon deploys large numbers of US troops in each region, with an impressive range of conventional and unconventional capabilities. The US has offered many countries diverse security guarantees, including pledges to potentially employ US nuclear capabilities to protect them. Finally, the US has been constructing missile defence architectures globally to counter Iranian and North Korean missile threats.

Indeed, during the past decade, the US has made considerable progress in addressing these missile threats through augmenting US and allied missile defences. In Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the US has been working to establish the foundation for a regional missile defence system made up of US forward-deployed BMD systems combined with those of US allies. The US has been pursuing BMD cooperation with various countries in Europe (bilaterally and through Nato), the Asia-Pacific (Japan, Australia and South Korea), and the Middle East (Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council members). These allies can host forward-based BMD sensors and missile interceptors, share the costs of building and maintaining the BMD architecture, and network their data with other actors to provide a superior operational picture.

In each region, the administration has been pursuing a phased, adaptive approach that adjusts US BDM policies in a flexible manner as the missile threats evolve.

In Europe, for instance, the Obama administration has worked more closely with Nato as well as individual Nato countries such as Romania and Turkey to develop its European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The EPAA has redirected US BMD efforts closer toward Iran to address that country's limited-range missiles. As Iran's missile capabilities improve, the EPAA will deploy increasingly more advanced SM-3 interceptors that can protect more Nato territory.

Japan is one of the US's closest BMD partners. Japan is the only other country besides the US that has the capacity to intercept ballistic missiles well above the upper atmosphere, confirmed by several sea-based intercept tests. Together with the US Missile Defence Agency, Japan is helping develop the next-generation SM Block 2A system that will enable defence of larger areas and against more sophisticated threats. The US and Japan recently agreed to construct a new early warning radar in southern Japan to augment the already functioning X-band radar in northern Japan, at the Shariki base. The two countries are particularly concerned about North Korea's potential development of a long-range missile and China's development of anti-ship missiles.

South Korea is an ally of the US and Washington has helped to develop its BMD capabilities. Seoul has acquired Aegis ships and Patriot batteries and has expressed interest in land- and sea-based missile defence systems, early warning radars and a command and control system. Historical tensions between Japan and South Korea have kept them from cooperating effectively on missile defence or many other security issues. Seoul has also declined to share its BMD assets with other countries through a networked regional BMD architecture for fear of antagonising China, which fears that the US is using missile defence as a means to encircle China with revitalised US bilateral alliances in Asia.

Australia has been one of the US's first BMD partners since the July 2004 signing of a BMD framework memorandum of understanding. The US and Australia share BMD data and participate in multilateral missile defence war games. US officials are reviewing the possibility of establishing a third X-Band radar in the Philippines, where it could help track ballistic missiles launched from North Korea or parts of China. The Philippines' territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea have encouraged the Philippines to seek to strengthen its security ties with the US.

In the Middle East, Washington has attempted to counter ballistic missile threats in the region through regional alliances, for example the GCC, bilateral arrangements with individual Middle-Eastern governments, and through unilateral measures to protect its armed forces and interests. The United Arab Emirates is purchasing missiles from the US, while other GCC-states have already deployed Patriot batteries and are considering buying other anti-ballistic missile systems. Israel also continues to work closely with the US on BMD matters; it has Patriot missile systems, hosts advanced US BMD radars,and is working jointly with the US to develop its own advanced BMD interceptors.

Richard Weitz is director of the Centre for Political-Military Analysis and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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