So, the planned ballistic missile defence installations in Europe have been cancelled, and the US is looking instead at deploying ships with an upgraded version of the Aegis air-defence missile system in European waters, backed up with mobile and airborne radars. (There’s a lot of detail here.) This is sense. It’s sense for a number of reasons:
Firstly, the GMD system that was originally proposed has a famously poor track record, so the concrete advantages to be gained from it were dubious. The SM-3 missile and the Aegis radar/computer complex have done much better, and have the huge advantage of being useful in other tactical roles. And they have significant scope for further improvement.
Secondly, it’s much more likely that any threat to NATO with missiles would involve short- or intermediate-range missiles rather than ICBMs – they are easier to make, more available, and more usable in the context of “not triggering a nuclear strike from the Americans or Russians”. The Aegis system was designed in large measure to deal with precisely these threats; the GMD was designed to intercept intercontinental missiles on their way to the US, and would have been vulnerable to shorter-ranged rockets. However, Aegis does have the potential to engage longer-ranged missiles early in their flight as part of a boost phase defence.
Thirdly, it doesn’t involve stationing a very long range radar very close to the heartland of Russia.
Fourthly, it’s actually in production now, and therefore represents technology under active incremental development rather than an experimental job.
Taken together, you have to wonder who would have ever thought the GMD installation was a good idea. The answer was, roughly, “neocons”; to a large extent, the fact that it pissed off the Russians was a feature not a bug. The cattle-market between Poland and the US over the issue also demonstrates that even the Poles were a lot keener on the side benefits of the deal – i.e. US security guarantees and a great deal of modern equipment for their armed forces – than the actual rockets themselves.
After all, as the system didn’t really protect Poland, it was a pretty weird way to signal Atlantic solidarity and deterrent support. For all these reasons, we blogged back in June, 2007, it was an awful idea and the seaborne option was far better.