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No guarantees

May 18, 2012

NATO's planned missile shield has dampened relations with Russia. But German peace researcher Oliver Meier says Moscow exaggerates any threat the shield - which may never even function as envisioned - might pose.

In this Thursday, April 14, 2011 photo released by the Missile Defense Agency, a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the USS O?Kane in a joint Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test conducted at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The SM-3 successfully intercepted a target missile launched from the Reagan Test Site, located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. (AP Photo/Missile Defense Agency courtesy of NAVAIR)
Image: AP

Oliver Meier, a political scientist at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg(IFSH), is an expert on disarmament and arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and US and EU foreign and security policies.

DW: Iran crops up whenever NATO analyzes threat scenarios. The alliance argues a missile defense shield must be built up in phases by 2020 - does that mean they will be able to shoot down a missile launched from countries regarded as threatening?

Oliver Meier: This is still very vague. The critical phase begins in 2018, when NATO plans to install a new interceptor missile that is currently still being developed. It's not clear whether it will work. Of course we need a high degree of deployment security to protect the population. But with systems that are as complex as the missile defense shield, there is no guarantee that complete protection can be assured. Which is, however, essential in case of a nuclear threat - all it takes is one single nuclear warhead to overcome the defense shield….

Do you agree with the threat scenarios NATO has repeatedly presented - that Iran might plan to fire a missile onto NATO territory?

First of all, the threat doesn't even exist yet. This is only about nuclear weapons, Iran doesn't have nuclear arms yet and the international community is at present taking pains to convince the country not to develop any. So, the entire project stands on feet of clay. Of course, the big question is what will happen if Iran can be convinced and the crisis is defused. Will NATO be in a position to end this project? I doubt that very much. In the US and in Europe, some also have their sights on other possible threats; the US is concerned about China. Differing interests complicate the situation and would make it difficult to back out of such a project.

Oliver Meier
There may be a new arms race on the horizon, Meier saysImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Would you say the system the way it is planned now could in theory intercept Russian missiles and thus put the country's nuclear arms capability into perspective?

Certainly not at present, and certainly not before 2018. Right now, Russian concerns are abstract, founded on the fact that the system is highly flexible. A large part of the missiles will be stationed on ships. By nature, ships could be deployed elsewhere, not just where they might intercept Iranian missiles. In future, they might be sent to sites where they could intercept Russian missiles. But one has to point out that Russia's worries are exaggerated to a certain degree - at the moment, Russia still has several thousand nuclear weapons. The notion that a US missile defense system could intercept that many missiles is, as far as I'm concerned, a bit of an illusion.

Throughout the long history of missile defense there have repeatedly been plans to integrate Russia, initiate cooperation with Russia. They have all failed. There is some cooperation in the field of short-range missiles, joint exercises and computer simulation. Why won't Russia agree to cooperation with NATO in the field of medium-range missile, which the NATO Secretary-General has offered?

The ideas on cooperation differ widely. Russia wants to play an equal role. Once, there even was the idea to split the territory in question between NATO and Russia, giving Russia responsibility for attacks from a certain direction and NATO from the other. Such a partnership is unrealistic for several reasons: both sides still mistrust each other far too much to actually work so closely together in sensitive areas of national defense. US Congress would never agree to that kind of integration. The fact that the US has an unassailable technological head start also makes it difficult.

As a countermeasure, Russia has threatened to set up a missile shield of its own in Kaliningrad. From a military and security policy point of view - does that make sense? Their missiles could be fired from anywhere in Russia.

From a military point of view, that hardly makes a difference. We're seeing a lot of symbolism here. Symbolism that is, understandably, quite effective in neighboring states (the Baltic states and Poland - the ed.) - we're talking about short-range weapons Russia wants to deploy, possibley even with nuclear warheads. Naturally that's an alarming level of escalation. There's the basic problem that the installation of a missile defense system makes nuclear disarmament more difficult.

The more progress we make in disarmament - in principle, both the US and Russia are in favor of that -, the more "successful" efforts are to build up effective missile defense systems. The fewer missiles you have, the easier it is to launch them. We haven't been able to solve the dilemma that missile defense systems contribute to putting the brakes on disarmament and even threaten armament, the development of new weapons or quitting disarmament treaties. That's the reason we even face the threat of a new arms race.

Interview: Bernd Riegert / db
Editor: Rob Mudge