Defense Media Network

The Phased Adaptive Approach: Proponents and Opponents for Land-based European BMD

Part 1

The Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) has provided guidance for the development of U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities since it was proposed in 2009. The decision to focus on Aegis BMD for land-based European BMD led the U.S. government to terminate the plan that would have placed ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors and missile-defense radar sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. These systems would have been focused almost solely on national missile defense for the United States against potential rogue-nation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs). Instead, the PAA focused more heavily on existing threats to U.S. forces and allies from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The efficacy of the decision to make this radical course change and use Aegis BMD as the foundation of the Phased Adaptive Approach did not come as a surprise to knowledgeable defense observers and was, in many respects, the most – if not only – viable option.

The president’s decision to make this major shift in U.S. ballistic missile policy and defer the planned fixed-site ground-based system in Europe in favor of Aegis BMD afloat and ashore was a direct and rapid response to the clear and present danger of short-to intermediate-range Iranian ballistic missiles carrying WMD. Importantly, the critical seaborne “leg” of PAA was already operational and on station when President Barack Obama announced the new plan.

USS Monterey

U.S. Navy sailors man the rails as the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey departs Naval Station Norfolk, Va., to provide the first ballistic missile defense under the European Phased Adaptive Approach, March 7, 2011. The Monterey was the first Navy ship to implement the new Phased Adaptive Approach. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Julie Matyascik

The efficacy of the decision to make this radical course change and use Aegis BMD as the foundation of the Phased Adaptive Approach did not come as a surprise to knowledgeable defense observers and was, in many respects, the most – if not only – viable option. As Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute observed:

[Aegis BMD] is also the most politically palatable response to the proliferation of ballistic missile technology among potential aggressor nations. In 2009, the Obama Administration killed plans to build a European version of the ground-based missile defense system already deployed in California and Alaska because of political controversy – including threats against host nations from Russia. It opted instead to use Aegis technology for a defense of European and other regional allies against the ballistic missiles Iran is fielding. The USS Monterey‘s foray into the Mediterranean Sea is the first Navy mission implementing the revised plan, one that will be followed by a continuous sea-based missile defense capability in the region and a shore-based deployment of Aegis technology in Romania beginning in 2015. The White House plan, referred to as the Phased Adaptive Approach, calls for protecting an increasingly broad swath of Europe in four successive stages through 2020 as Aegis missiles, computers and radars become more capable.

tandard Missile – 3 (SM-3) Block 1B

A Standard Missile – 3 (SM-3) Block 1B interceptor is launched from the USS Lake Erie (CG 70) during a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and U.S. Navy test in the mid-Pacific, May 15, 2013. The SM-3 Block 1B successfully intercepted a target missile that had been launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Following target launch, the Lake Erie detected and tracked the target with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar. The ship, equipped with the second-generation Aegis BMD weapon system, developed a fire control solution and launched the SM-3 Block 1B. Missile Defense Agency photo

Criticism included a perception that the administration had “thrown our Eastern European allies under the bus.”

As part of the president’s September 2009 decision, the United States will deploy SM-3 interceptors using the sea-based Aegis BMD system, and then deploy improved SM-3s in 2015 on both ships and land. Rather than the ten ground-based interceptors originally envisioned in Poland, “Aegis Ashore” looks to deploy 40 to 50 SM-3 missiles on land, with more on board Navy BMD ships operating in nearby waters. More advanced SM-3 versions will be deployed in 2018. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2009, then-Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy described the rationale behind the president’s decision, and in so doing, explained the now-crucial link Aegis BMD plays in national and international ballistic missile defense, noting: “The new approach in Europe would also rely on a distributed network of sensors and proven SM-3 interceptors, which can be fired from both Aegis ships and from land. This means greater geographic flexibility, greater survivability and greater scalability in response to an evolving threat. That’s exactly what we mean by a phased, adaptive approach.”


European Phased Adaptive Approach: Proponents and Opponents

Initial roll out of the president’s PAA missile defense strategy was not universally well-received. To some, this was an astounding and risky gamble. One observer, Eric Edelman, the former undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration, suggested this change would “raise questions” about the American commitment to Europe. Criticism included a perception that the administration had “thrown our Eastern European allies under the bus.” A second criticism was that the United States was unilaterally surrendering to Russian demands to eliminate plans for a ground-based midcourse installation in Europe. Another criticism was that by committing to this new approach the United States had effectively reduced the opportunity for allied burden sharing in this mission area. But, as then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates noted in The New York Times, “The future of missile defense in Europe is secure.” His words, coming from the original “architect” of the European Third Site, did much to deflect discussion and debate.

NATO Chicago Summit

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visits the the exhibition on missile defense at NATO’s Chicago Summit, May 20, 2012. The Chicago Summit was a chance for the U.S. and NATO to solidify their support for the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA). NATO photo

As details of the administration’s consultations with Poland and the Czech Republic regarding basing for Aegis Ashore were revealed, criticism was muted. And, as cost comparisons between the ground-based system and Aegis Ashore were assessed and the success of the Navy’s Aegis BMD program continued, the administration’s plans gained greater traction. As the threat from Iranian ballistic missiles armed with WMD becomes more apparent, momentum is building for the European Phased Adaptive Approach, most recently, with Romania agreeing to base 24 interceptors on its territory and Turkey agreeing to base a radar system on its territory.

In September 2011, the Missile Defense Agency completed ground tests involving several distributed elements of the BMDS PAA Phase I capabilities and the NATO ALTBMD system. And in October 2011, in preparation for NATO’s Chicago Summit in May 2012, the Atlantic Council hosted the Transatlantic Missile Defense Conference to solidify the United States and NATO’s commitment to the EPAA.


Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...