This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
This week's NATO summit was supposed to serve as a catalyst to drive missile defense activities forward in Europe. But with Washington still defining its policy stance, the brakes are being put on expectations.
In another key area of alliance concern -- Afghanistan -- U.S. efforts to enlist greater European force commitments are also not likely to materialize, says Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and senior adviser at the Rand Corp. The Apr. 3-4 summit in Germany and France comes about six months too early for the Obama administration to have worked out a number of issues, he indicates.
Arms control and disarmament constitute a concern that the alliance's strategic concept needs to address, says German defense minister Franz Josef Young. "We need new initiatives for conventional arms control," he argues.
But for European missile defense efforts, the summit had been regarded as a key venue in which to urge members to embrace the concept of continental defense. The Pentagon's push for a European site for the ground-based midcourse system -- with a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland -- would be the centerpiece. But the Obama administration has yet to articulate a clear path forward on the third site, which Russia has strenuously opposed. As a result, the Czech government this month decided not to seek parliamentary endorsement for the radar construction.
In addition, it was hoped that working groups would be asked to study architectures for expanding the alliance's current emphasis on theater missile defense into a network covering all of Europe, and to begin cooperatively developing key new components such as early warning systems and interceptors. A German military official has warned that without U.S. sites in Europe, there would be no missile defense shield built on the continent.
However, not everyone shares that assessment. "Dropping the third site would have no impact from a capability standpoint; there are other solutions available," says Richard Deakin, senior vice president of Thales Air Systems Div., although he concedes there would be political repercussions from the U.S.'s backing away from the so-called third site (augmenting those in Alaska and California).
"We think BMD [ballistic missile defense] will be less important in Strasbourg than initially expected," says MBDA CEO Antoine Bouvier. "The likely result," he notes, is that there will be more of a focus on expanding air defense capability to cover a range of new threats, using a building-block approach, rather than a pure BMD program. MBDA is pursuing a dual-track approach, with the Aster 30 Block 1 for the SAMP/T system providing a capability against short-range ballistic threats. The Aster Block 2 design, with its high endoatmospheric-intercept capability, would be able to counter medium-range weapons.
Bouvier suggests that Aster Block 2 would be capable of engaging weapons such as the SS-26, which follows a flattened trajectory and can begin terminal maneuvers at altitudes of roughly 25,000 meters (82,000 ft.).
The Block 2 missile is intended to be compatible with both land and naval launchers for the Aster 30.
France, which is expected to fully return into the NATO structure, is stepping up its interest in missile defense. In contrast, European efforts are largely fractured, with countries having been unable to agree on a common approach. That leaves European governments charting different courses.
For example, at the end of the development period for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (Meads) lower-tier anti-missile program, the Italian air force will decide whether to acquire 2-4 batteries. The country's navy is more committed to missile defense but hasn't yet determined whether to embrace a European or U.S. interceptor.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made missile defense a priority. The 2009-13 military spending plan, now before parliament, includes a number of items earmarked for this area. The most notable are an early warning satellite/radar network and a Block 2 Aster air defense system that are supposed to be operational by 2020.
Further funding is expected to come from a 2.3-billion ($3.1-billion) French government economic stimulus package for aerospace and defense projects approved last year, says Bouvier. With President Barack Obama willing to give U.S. allies a more equitable role in common defense, "it's an opportunity for Europe to make its voice heard and contribute in kind, not just with funding," he says.
"[Territorial BMD] will require no real technology breakthroughs, but it will be costly," says Michel Mathieu, CEO of Thales Raytheon Systems. Although it would make sense to split the burden without duplicating efforts, he says, U.S. technology restrictions appear to make this unfeasible -- at least for sensitive technologies such as radar, interceptors and seekers.
The cornerstone of territorial BMD will be NATO's Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) and notably its Air Command and Control System (ACCS), which is being supplied by Thales Raytheon Systems. ALTBMD is effectively the backbone to link NATO's disparate systems, ranging from Patriot and Meads batteries to ships and potentially a U.S. interceptor site in Poland.
After a long development period that ended with factory acceptance testing last year, NATO is preparing to deploy the ACCS at 15 sites in 13 countries, although the system's full functionality remains to be further enhanced. A framework contract for the deployment phase, known as Replication, will be issued in June and contracts let in batches, starting in November and continuing through 2012. The initial operating capability will be reached in 2010 or 2011, depending on which software version (factory acceptance or Block 1 upgrade) is used, says Mathieu. Upgrade 1 renders the system compatible with NATO's latest planning/tasking requirements and provides new automation, interactivity and real-time data features, as well as the ability to interface with existing hardware. Full operating lower-tier capability will be reached in 2013 and full upper tier in 2014-16.
The same architecture will be retained for territorial missile defense, according to Mathieu, although specific new functions, such as the full air picture, will be added.
Work on the Block 2 Aster, which will expand the defense capability to counter ballistic and cruise missiles, is already underway under a French technology development program, says Bruno Delacour, vice president of advanced weapon solutions at Thales's Air Systems Div. Block 2 will feature a long-range radar to be derived from France's M3R demonstrator. The M3R -- a fully distributed derivative of Thales's new Ground Master 400 S-band active-array radar family -- will begin tracking trials this year. Block 2 also will include a Ka- rather than a Ku-band seeker. It will be able to handle the faster speeds and smaller radar cross sections of longer-range missiles. This seeker is also set to start trials in 2009.
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