NATO Considers Missile Defense Upgrade, Risking Further Tensions With Russia

Upgrading existing ballistic missile defense capabilities, including its two Aegis Ashore sites, would be complex. The NATO Aegis systems in Romania and Poland are incapable of firing the interceptor used to strike intermediate-range missiles. And given their close positions to Russia, the systems have significantly less time to detect, lock onto and attempt to intercept the missiles.

The United States Missile Defense Agency has examined how existing Aegis Ashore missile defense systems could be upgrade with new radar, software and interceptors to allow them to strike intermediate ballistic missiles and potentially cruise missiles, according to current and former officials briefed on the discussions.

Newer technologies like high-velocity projectiles and directed-energy lasers are likely to provide a far better defense long term, experts said. Ballistic missile defenses intercept missiles high in the atmosphere, while cruise missiles fly relatively low to the ground.

Fielding new systems to defend against a cruise missile threat, rather than upgrading the existing ballistic missile defense, may also prove more politically palatable. “If NATO is to update its systems, it may undermine its yearslong claim that the launchers were never meant to counter Russia,” said Bruno Lété, a defense analyst in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

But many Europeans see themselves as in the line of fire with the new Russian cruise missile deployments, he said. “There is a clear incentive for NATO to see if they can upgrade the existing systems to counter Russian intermediary missiles,” Mr. Lété said. “From a military perspective, this would be a relatively simple, decisive and cost-effective step.”

Russian military doctrine, according to American and European military strategists, is increasingly focused on using limited nuclear strikes to quickly end a potential conflict in Moscow’s favor. Such a use of nuclear weapons for a battlefield effect is unthinkable to European politicians and has made some allied officials more open to examining the practicality of using the existing missile defense system to defend against Russia.

“We want to make sure the Russians don’t want to exercise nuclear blackmail, and missile defense is the way to take away that intimidation, to deter that intimidation,” Mr. Townsend said.

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