Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Nowadays, developing modern missile defence systems require high investments and a research and development base to create them. A new challenge for missile and air defence is the need to combat unmanned aerial vehicles, hypersonic missiles as well as barely detectable aircraft.

Many Eastern European countries have accumulated a large number of Soviet-era devices, and when it comes to air defence, these are mostly different versions of the STRELA and S300 anti-aircraft missile systems.
According to Russian experts, and as recent military exercises indicate, the Russian Federation is preparing for war in its immediate neighbourhood. The countries on NATO’s eastern flank are most concerned about a possible Russian threat, and the events of 2014 in Ukraine made them upgrade their military equipment, including air defence systems, all the more obvious.

Some leaders have emerged in Eastern Europe in the field of missile defence development. In 2007, US plans for the deployment of missile defence systems in Eastern Europe – interceptor missiles in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic – were publicly announced and immediately led to heated discussions.
The then US President George W. Bush declared the need to create such a system in order to protect NATO allies in Europe from a possible missile attack from the Middle East, especially Iran. However, the larger problem at the time was not so much the practical component of the issue as much as convincing the Europeans of the need for such a system.

Back then, Moscow formulated its position and claimed that the missile defence system was primarily directed against Russia, placing their strategic stability at risk. For fear of further NATO enlargement to the East, the Kremlin claimed that US interceptor missiles were directed against Russian missiles. The US insisted that 10 interceptor missiles would be unable to resist a wave of thousands of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Therefore, as neither side has changed its mind since 2007, the mutual concern of the US and Russia over the potential threat of ballistic missile proliferation has gradually increased.

Primary Targets

The deployment of missile defence systems in Eastern Europe was heavily criticised. The main argument against this was that European countries would become primary targets as soon as missile defence systems were stationed on their territory. There was also no clear information regarding the effectiveness of interception. The discussions about the need to deploy missile defence systems in Eastern Europe were already a test of NATO allies’ common policies. There were also questions about the feasibility of US missiles if there was no immediate threat.

In January 2019, the US Department of Defence (DoD) published its Missile Defence Report – a roadmap for US missile defence policy, strategy and programmes. In comparison to previous editions, the Report spoke of a significant increase in the threat level, with DoD experts referring to NATO’s progress in missile defence development in the period from the Bucharest Summit in 2008 to the 2018 Brussels Summit. In 2008, the Allies agreed that in light of an ongoing proliferation of ballistic missiles, NATO would develop missile defence capabilities for the sake of its collective defence.

NATO Goals

At the 2010 Lisbon Summit, discussions on the development of missile defence capabilities continued. The ambitious goal was to protect the entire population, the territory and armed forces of NATO from possible missile attacks, especially from Iran. At the 2012 Chicago Summit, it was announced that the Alliance had completed its first step under the Lisbon accords, which provided ultimate coverage within the framework of NATO funds in Europe for protection from a ballistic missile attack. The 2014 Wales Summit noted that the threat to NATO’s population and armed forces was increasing due to the proliferation of ballistic missiles. Additional voluntary national contributions were proposed, while the success of individual allies in gaining additional missile defence capabilities was recognised.

At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, the Eastern European Allies voiced their concern. They saw no increase in the development of missile defence systems, in particular in updating and developing European air defence into an integrated air and missile defence network to protect the deployed spearhead forces, in deterring non-strategic Russian missile attacks and protecting freedom of movement across the territory of all NATO members. The problem with Russia was finally recognised and a decision was taken to strengthen the defence of NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

At the 2018 Brussels Summit, in contrast to general statements on the proliferation of ballistic missiles, national NATO delegations spoke of Russian threats to strike the countries where NATO’s missile defence systems had been deployed, stating that the combination of nuclear and anti-missile capabilities remained a reliable deterrent.

Russian Threats

On 13 May 2016, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Polish government officials launched the AEGIS ASHORE missile defence system in Redzikowo, Poland. (Photo: DoD)

It should be noted that the new Missile Defence Report which is to guide the further development of the US missile programme compared to the last report in 2010, highlighted a number of new threats. In particular, the report noted a growing threat from rogue states and revisionist countries. Hypersonic missiles have also been added to the list of ballistic and cruise missiles.

On 1 March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that his country was in possession of hypersonic weapons. Although most questions about these weapons have not yet been answered, NATO has taken them into account. Compared to the 2010 Missile Defence Report, the 2019 issue, therefore, focuses on the uncertainty associated with future threats.

In addition to the remote threat posed by Russian hypersonic weapons (the US believes that Russian defence industry will only be able to make such missiles fully operable by 2020), the use of cruise missiles is more likely. Since 2015, Russia has carried out a number of successful long-range targeted strikes with these cruise missiles.
Russian threats against NATO missile defence in Eastern Europe came as a result of attempts by NATO to proceed in that direction. Russia first announced a possible deployment of missile systems in Kaliningrad in 2008 in response to US plans to deploy missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. The US then decided to suspend its efforts in this direction.

In 2012, at a missile defence conference in Moscow, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Nikolai Makarov, stated that Moscow could decide on a pre-emptive strike against European missile defence targets. The deployment of strike weapons in Russia’s South and North-West (including the deployment of ISKANDER missiles in the Kaliningrad region) was proposed as one option for the destruction of the European anti-missile infrastructure. In 2012, Makarov repeatedly said that the ISKANDER missile system in Kaliningrad region was a response to the modernisation of US missile defence facilities in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s deployment of the ISKANDER and S-400 systems on European borders remains ongoing. In March 2019, a number of Russian media outlets reported that the ISKANDER-M operational-tactical systems were being deployed in the Kaliningrad region, as well as the S-400 Regiment, which was set to be put in a combat ready mode. In addition, media statements reported that the Russian army had transferred the S-300 missile systems from Gvardeisk to Baltiysk close to the Polish border.

Poland’s Contribution

The issue of Polish air defence is another issue that has been dragging on for years. In 2018, the construction of a US missile defence base in the Polish settlement of Redzikowo, equipped with the multi-purpose AEGIS ASHORE missile system, was continued.

Already in 2008 it was decided to build a US missile defence base in Poland. Over the years, the concept changed from the use of long-range missiles to the use of missiles for protection within Europe. However, the view in Moscow was that both options should be viewed as hostile.

A Russian ISKANDER-M system. Russia has deployed several of these systems to its Kaliningrad exclave region close to the Polish border. (Photo: Vitaly Kuzmin)

As the Polish site did not become operational in 2018, its launch was postponed until 2020 and Poland started to procure US-made PATRIOT missile defence systems in 2017. As part of the agreement with Lockheed and Raytheon, Poland intends to purchase both the PATRIOT PAC-3 missiles and radars worth US$4.75Bn. The first supply will consist of two PATRIOT batteries consisting of 16 launchers and PAC-3 missiles. According to international media reports, the delivery of these systems to Poland is expected in 2022, with the first unit becoming operational in 2024. The deal was signed after Russia began deploying ISKANDERs to its exclave Kaliningrad region.

Plans for the deployment of US missile defence systems in Romania date back to 2010. The launch of a missile defence base in Romania (in Deveselu) in 2016 resonated in mass media while sparking a negative reaction in Russia. In February 2019, Russia demanded that the US would tear down its missile defence systems in Romania, in particular the MK-41 launch system. At the same time, Moscow called on the US to destroy the strike drones, a demand voiced in the context of the suspension of the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty).

However, while both Poland and Romania have experience in cooperating with the US in missile defence, similar processes in other Eastern European countries are less dynamic. In Hungary, for example, the MISTRAL short-range anti-aircraft missile systems are to be upgraded by MBDA, a European developer and manufacturer of missile systems. Romania earlier reported on the modernisation of existing HAWK medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems. Regarding Russia, in addition to the short-range Tor, S-300, S-400 air defence systems, and the Pantsir S-1 anti-aircraft missile-artillery system, the media has reported the completion of state tests of the S-350 Vityaz air defence system, and plans to deploy in 2019 in the Central Military District the Buk-M3 medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems. The S-500 air defence missile system is also being created, which over time is set to replace the S-400.

The Case of Ukraine

Interesting processes are underway in Ukraine. When work began in 2011 on the deployment of anti-missile defence elements in Poland and Romania, Ukraine’s course did not envisage participation in the development of such a system. Kyiv back then maintained a balance between the pro-Western course and cooperation with the Russian Federation, although at meetings with NATO officials, Ukraine’s possible participation in the future development of missile defence was not ruled out. However, at that time, such a future scenario looked very unlikely from a practical perspective.

The shifts began after 2014, as Ukraine began to modernise its existing missile systems, as well as develop new short-range and medium-range missile systems that met INF Treaty limitations. In 2015, Ukraine’s National Defence and Security Council Secretary, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced the goal of restoring Ukraine’s missile shield.
To underpin this goal, Turchynov cited a government order to develop and restore Ukraine’s missile potential. One of the examples is the development by the state-owned design bureau Luch and Pivdenne design bureau of Neptune cruise missiles, Vilkha artillery rocket systems, and Hrim-2 operational-tactical complex. Another project by Pivdenne Design Bureau is the Korshun-2 subsonic cruise missile, which due to its design and use scheme, according to the Ukrainian Military Portal, should compete with the US Tomahawk or Russian Kalibr cruise missiles.

All of these developments, given sufficient funding, are a new ‘breath of fresh air’ in missile production in Ukraine, and above all, are an indicator that the country is beginning to restore the base for the construction of missiles.

The INF Treaty

The situation has changed significantly at the beginning of 2019, due to the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, as well as the signing of a decree on 4 March 2019 by Russian President Vladimir Putin to suspend Russia’s implementation of the Treaty. As a result of lifting of restrictions on the range of missiles, the prospects are now being discussed for Ukrainian developments in the new international realities. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made a strong statement about the fact that the country was not bound by any restrictions after Russia destroyed the Treaty. However, it will take time to implement such programmes and balance the flow of the systems both for exports and for individual armed forces.

In the context of the suspension of the INF and formation of new challenges, an interesting statement was made during the 2019 Munich Security Conference. German MEP Manfred Weber stated that the EU should build a missile defence system with Ukraine’s participation. He suggested that such an initiative should help overcome the division of Europe along the East-West line. Although this is unlikely at this moment, even a discussion in this direction is an important signal by European countries of their role in maintaining and preserving collective security.

Soldiers of the Polish 35th Air Defence Squadron demonstrate the W125 launcher SC anti-missile system’s capabilities during an interoperability exercise with US forces in Poland on 14 January 2016. (Photo: US Army / Sgt. Paige Behring)

As for the missile defence, Ukraine is updating its existing systems. In 2019, the Ukrainian Army is expected to receive reconditioned and modernised complexes of various modifications such as the BUK, S-300, S-125, while the Ukrainian air defence is mostly equipped with the S-300PT and S-300 PS, as well as BukM1. The consultancy Defence Express reported that Ukraine’s military leadership had initiated efforts to repair short-range air defence systems, such as OSA-AKM, STRELA-10, the SHILKA self-propelled anti-aircraft missile system, and Tunguska air defence missile system, primarily to combat low-altitude targets such as UAVs. Another promising development is the medium-range Dnipro anti-aircraft missile system, which has a declared target detection range of 150 km and, which is already undergoing tests.

Therefore, for many reasons, Eastern Europe used to forget about the issue of anti-missile defences, even being aware that Russia was systemically modernising its armed forces, where the air defence takes an important place. While events in Ukraine during 2014 provoked a new round of development of missile and anti-missile defence systems in the country, this has not served as an example for other countries across in Eastern Europe, with the exception of Poland and Romania.

Alexander Horobets is an analyst for international and Arctic affairs based in Kyiv, Ukraine.