U.S. officials worry delays in NATO taking operational control would be seen as a sign of weakness by Moscow
U.S. officials say they are worried that any delay in having NATO take operational control of the system would be interpreted by Russia as a sign of weakness.
Russia has repeatedly expressed opposition to the system, arguing it is a threat to its nuclear deterrent. NATO officials insist the system is neither designed to nor capable of nullifying Russia’s missiles arsenal, and instead is intended to thwart a missile attack from countries such as Iran.
Alliance and U.S. officials believe that if NATO doesn’t use its July summit in Warsaw to take control of the missile-defense system and declare it operational, Russia will declare that the alliance is bending to its will.
A French official said Paris’s concerns have nothing to do with Russian opposition, but rather over whether the NATO command and control would work.
“We are not sold on IOC,” said the French official, using the acronym for initial operating capability, the military term for the next stage of the system’s development.
French officials say they want to make sure that the system is truly under alliance, not American control.
“It is not just a technical question, there is a political aspect,” the French official said. “If it is [a] NATO system, NATO takes the responsibility if you shoot down the missile. NATO takes responsibility if you miss.”
Another French official added that the NATO command and control system wasn’t ready and that the system remained an American one. “The C2 system is not sufficiently mature to allow NATO to control the situation,” the official said.
French officials are analyzing the results of an April exercise, Steadfast Alliance, designed to test whether the system is operationally ready. NATO’s top military officer will make a recommendation whether he considers the system ready.
Bob Bell, the top defense official in the U.S. mission to NATO, said last month that the U.S. remained “very confident we are on track” to declare in initial operating capability in Warsaw.
Mr. Bell, speaking last month at the Royal United Services Institute in London, acknowledged there was “some homework to do,” but expressed confidence that any remaining issues over the missile-defense system could be addressed. He suggested, though, that Paris harbored concerns. “The French are fond of saying: ‘Yes, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?’” Mr. Bell told the think tank.
The short flight time of ballistic missiles requires military commanders trying to shoot them down to make nearly instantaneous decisions. U.S. officials said that once NATO took command the system would intercept missiles based on rules laid down by alliance ambassadors.
Alliance military leaders and foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels this week but missile defense isn’t on the formal agenda, as officials work to answer French officials’ questions about the command-and-control system.
The alliance used common funding to build its own command-and-control system at Ramstein air base in Germany for the American-designed radar and missile systems. Alliance officials are also promoting other allies’ contributions, including British radar and Dutch ships.
If the system is transferred to NATO in July, U.S. officials hope that it will be at full operating capability in 2023, after the completion of an interceptor site in Poland. A NATO official involved in the process said the final decision on whether to declare the system operationally ready will likely go down to the wire.
The most important part of the system—the Romanian radar and interceptor site, the Turkey-based X-band radar used to help target the interceptors, and Spain-based U.S. naval destroyers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles—are U.S. equipment.
French and alliance officials said if the capability isn’t made official at Warsaw, the system could be transferred in the following months.
“Are we going to reach that goal by the time of Warsaw or will it take longer? The short answer is, we don’t know yet,” said Roberto Zadra, head of integrated air-and-missile defense at NATO’s defense investment division. “Collectively we are not there yet.”
Write to Julian E. Barnes at email@example.com and Robert Wall at firstname.lastname@example.org