During the NATO meeting in Chicago, the alliance will declare that it has an interim operational capability to defend itself against ballistic missile attacks. This is a major step forward for NATO and U.S. leadership within the alliance.

The declaration marks the achievement of the first phase in the Obama Administration’s European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan. This interim capability is based on the Aegis missile defense system and its accompanying Standard missile defense interceptor called the Block IA, which is deployed on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers. This is a system that has demonstrated its capability in numerous intercept tests.

As the term “interim operational capability” implies, however, this system is very limited in scope and needs to be expanded both qualitatively and quantitatively. The major shortcoming is that the capability does not extend to defendingU.S.territory against long-range missile attack. An earlier architecture, proposed by the George W. Bush Administration, would have provided for a defense of U.S. as well as European territory by fielding ground-based midcourse defense interceptors inPolandand an accompanying radar in the Czech Republic.

This option, which also included the Aegis system, was canceled by President Obama in 2009 in order to appease Russian objections to it. This interim capability leaves U.S. allies more vulnerable to missile attacks than the technology would otherwise permit, because the Aegis missile defense system could have been made more capable than the one in place today by providing it the ability to counter long-range missiles in the late midcourse phase of flight.

Despite this decision, the Russians continue to object to U.S. and NATO missile defense capabilities. The Obama Administration in particular has responded to Russian objections by attempting to persuadeRussiathatU.S.and NATO missile defense will not pose a threat to Russian missile-based nuclear forces. This approach to diplomacy toward Russia is misguided for at least the following four reasons:

  1. The purpose of any missile defense system is to counter an offensive missiles only after they have been have been fired. They are inherently defensive and do not pose a threat to anyone.
  2. The U.S. in particular has described its diplomacy toward Russia regarding missile defense as an attempt to find a cooperative arrangement where Russia will participate in a broader missile defense system. Genuine missile defense cooperation withRussiawould be desirable, but the current approach is about cooperating to limit the overall capabilities of the missile defense system. The Russians have made it clear that this is how they view it, and U.S. diplomacy has only served to reinforce this view.
  3. Missile defense itself is not at the crux of the impasse withRussia; it really stems from Russia’s view that its national security depends on its ability to threaten the U.S. and its NATO partners with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles—and most particularly those NATO countries that reside within its asserted zone of privileged interests. This Russian view should be unacceptable to all NATO countries under any circumstances, and the alliance should not be shy about stating this to the Russians.
  4. This diplomatic approach fails to recognize that the proper way out of the current impasse is to persuade Russia that fundamentally defensive strategic postures are in everybody’s interest. The U.S. and NATO should have no objections toRussiamaintaining a capability to defend itself, even in the context of an unjustified perception byRussiathat the U.S. and other NATO countries are intent on committing acts of aggression. This is because the U.S. and NATO have no such intention and do not build their forces for such a purpose. The success of this diplomatic approach depends on Russia renouncing any aggressive intent toward the U.S. and NATO.

Given present circumstances, NATO leaders should use the Chicago meeting to affirm that alliance members, both individually and collectively, intend to defend themselves against missile attack by pursuing the most capable missile defense system technology permits. They should also challenge the Russians to join them in adopting fundamentally defensive strategic postures, where genuine cooperation in the field of missile defense will naturally be a central component.