Are Missile Defense Systems Exacerbating Global Tensions?

photo by US Missile Defense Agency via Flickr 

Missile defense systems, not unlike missiles themselves, have the propensity to make governments, and their corresponding militaries, antsy. Here’s what you need to know.

Missile defense systems – which are meant to mitigate the threat of missile attacks – have grown both in sophistication, and in number, over the years.

With effective systems like America’s terminal high altitude defense (THAAD), which uses a warhead-less counter missile to to destroy incoming incoming rockets in air, defensive missile systems worldwide have become the object of much desire.

Their presence, however, is not always so welcome. Defensive missile systems, though designed to ensure safety, can sometimes exacerbate tensions between foreign powers.

Recent missile defense

Missile defense systems have enjoyed a recent surge of attention lately, as tensions across Europe, fueled by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, have run high.

This, coupled with the increasing threat of ballistic missiles, has prompted forces around the world to hone in on bolstering their missile defense systems.

Some recent efforts include:

  • NATO – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called to expedite NATO’s plan for a more holistic missile defense system following escalation in Ukraine
  • US Testtesting of the seaborne missile defense system called AEGIS has been accelerated following rising tensions between NATO forces, and Russia
  • JapanFollowing an uptick in violence between North and South Korea, which included both missiles and an exchange in fire, the US sent AEGIS ships equipped with advanced missile defense systems

What is their effect?

Missile defense systems – just like ballistic missiles – can sometimes exacerbate political tensions.

Their ability to agitate world powers has been made evident more recently by South Korea’s bid to introduce America’s powerful THAAD system in an effort to mitigate the threat of a North Korean attack – a decision condemned by China whom North Korea considers its strongest ally.

The THAAD system raises China’s alarms for a few reasons: one being that the system is so powerful that it – from South Korea – could potentially render much of China’s mainland incapable of using ballistic missiles.

The second being that the system is being supplied by the US, who happens to be South Korea’s strongest ally and is perceived as a potential aggressor to China’s power.

South Korea is caught somewhere in the middle. While it is obligated to protect the nearly 30,000 US troops stationed at the North Korean border, it maintains a strong trading relationship with China to the tune of $235 billion.

This is far from an isolated event. Other global points of contention involving missile defense systems include:

More recently, defense systems have spurred tensions between:

  • Denmark and Russia – Denmark’s decision to become part of NATO’s missile defense shield was condemned by their Russian ambassador who said ships equipped with the missile defense could become targets for nuclear subs. NATO’s missile defense shield has been the object of scorn amongst Russian leaders before.

The takeaway

Missile defense systems continue to be an area of constant development in the US and across the world.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Missile Defense Agency plans on spending roughly $8 billion per year developing missile defense technology.

With countries like North Korea having access to short-range and medium range ballistic missiles, and the constant threat of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, they may be even be key to ensuring safety around the world.

Though if recent events are any indication, the implementation of such systems may be just as problematic.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
James Pero