Romanian President Traian Basescu announced Thursday that he plans to sign an agreement with the United States committing Washington to deploy a land-based variant (still in development) of the successful Aegis/SM-3 ballistic missile defense (BMD) system and American troops on Romanian soil. While it happened to be the same day that the first test of the SM-3 Block IB failed (these things do happen after all), many Central European countries’ interest in the new ‘European Phased Adaptive Approach’ remain unabated.
This is because the Central Europeans quite frankly don’t care at all about BMD. Romania could be hosting a component of AFRICOM’s headquarters and land-locked Czech Republic a Navy riverine squadron for all they cared. They care about the American security commitment, and the commitment the deployment of American military hardware and American military personnel that BMD installations entail.
But while Romania is enthusiastic, the Czechs, having been burned in the previous proposal, are more skeptical. Slated to receive a fixed X-band radar alongside Poland-based ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors (already deployed in Alaska and California, though with a spottier track record) under the George W. Bush administration, the scheme was dropped amidst concerted Russian opposition in 2009. The Czechs now both want a bigger chunk of the new scheme yet remain wary of another American reversal.
If the land-based variant of the Aegis/SM-3 system can be more quickly (and cheaply) emplaced and displaced than GMD, that will provide the U.S. with additional flexibility. And though the scheme for the European Phased Adaptive Approach has been sketched out, it retains considerable malleability.
This would all be good news for the American effort to protect the continental United States from (yet to exist) Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with (yet to exist) miniaturized, hardened nuclear warheads in a hypothetical scenario where Tehran would choose to launch a nuclear attack on the United States from its own soil.
But ‘phased’ and ‘adaptive’ are the last things America’s Central European allies want. Especially after the withdrawal of the previous plan and the lack of a response to the Russian invasion and occupation of South Ossetia, these countries hunger now for assurances of the strength, durability and credibility of the American security guarantee (one that is, incidentally, hurting on both sides of Eurasia). And the concern that this guarantee is insufficient has already prompted an initiative to form of an independent battlegroup among Central European countries.
It is a good thing that the pursuit of BMD technology is here to stay. But a weapon system is not an end in and of itself, and its deployment is both a military and a political phenomenon. The choices that Washington makes in the actual emplacement of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (a phrase that could only be coined in Washington) — particularly when countries like Russia have made it politically difficult and inconvenient to pursue specific paths — will be watched closely in capitals from Tallinn to Tbilisi.