A Shield for Europe: NATO Response to the New Missile Threat

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The World is changing, under the pressing resurgence of strategic hypercompetition and growing geopolitical crisis. New threats are constantly emerging and old ones are resolutely coming back from the past, driven by new technological integration. The current conflict in Ukraine reminds us of how hybrid strategies do not exclude high intensity conflicts from their spectrum but include them as an extreme and integrated element of an irregular and blurred continuum of competition....

The World is changing, under the pressing resurgence of strategic hypercompetition and growing geopolitical crisis. New threats are constantly emerging and old ones are resolutely coming back from the past, driven by new technological integration. The current conflict in Ukraine reminds us of how hybrid strategies do not exclude high intensity conflicts from their spectrum but include them as an extreme and integrated element of an irregular and blurred continuum of competition.

This condition substantially derives from the fact that the hybrid approach is nothing else that an indirect course of action willfully designed to outpace and overcome an adversary which is militarily stronger and thus more difficult to defeat just on the battlefield. As such, it aims at disarticulating and degrading the sociopolitical and economic system of the enemy, in order to undermine its home front and divert its foreign policy, thus preventing and avoiding any effective military response from an adversary. When transferred in a situation of open conflict in a high intensity scenario, the hybrid approach tends to target more objectives which are functional for a society and whose destruction may cause major disruption of basic services, substantially suppressing the morale and will to fight.

In this perspective, the countervalue strike acquire a much more important significance, becoming for State and non-State actors a major tool to confront a military superior adversary. The deployment and use of long-range effectors, i.e. missiles and one way attack drones, offer then a perfect instrument to cause serious damages to the critical national infrastructures, keeping a wide radius of enemy territory under threat and ensuring limited attrition due to the employment of stand-off capabilities. The combination of new, improved and sometimes cheaper vectors and guidance systems with a countervalue approach generate a truly dangerous threat for any Country, including the Members of the Atlantic Alliance. The proliferation of small, slow moving, and low altitude aerial systems or, at the opposite, the fielding of hypersonic, gliding, and highly maneuvering missiles pose indeed a challenge for the current air defense assets.

With this in mind, both NATO and its European Member States have addressed the need for a much more effective, integrated, multilayered, and fast responding air and missile defense architecture. However, differences and discussions exist on the best approach to be followed. For instance, in 2022, a group of Countries led by Germany proposed the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), a complex three-layer, multi-asset, integrated missile defense, but if in its conception it failed to include the Mediterranean States, in its implementation it foresaw nearly a complete dependence from air defense systems developed and produced outside the European defense market. This aspect was and is a significant downside of the proposal, especially in times of increasing attention to strategic autonomy and reliable supply chains, first and foremost in the defense sector.

Meanwhile NATO has implemented an effective top-down approach, resolutely aimed at promoting meaningful discussion between its Members on the subject and aimed at coordinating the procurement of assets to counter ballistic and cruise vectors. In detail, the instruments developed are the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), with its center in the Ramstein based NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) HQ and the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Policy Committee (IAMD PC). This second institution promote a political-military interaction among the different General Armament Directorates for the development and procurement of air defense systems.

Beside all these initiatives, Europe may also leverage a successful industrial experience, that in the foreseeable future could progressively become the epicenter of a truly European integrated air and missile defense. MBDA, a consortium of Leonardo, BAE Systems and Airbus, is indeed posed to satisfy reliably and for the foreseeable future, much of the needs in the air defense segment with state-of-the-art solution relying on European owned technology and manufacturing. If hybrid strategies are becoming hybrid wars, then missiles are set to become a major threat and Europe, as well as NATO, are actively looking forward for a solution, that may already lay in their industrial base.
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