A missile is launched during a drill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on August 30, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Addressing her country’s military in Toulon on Tuesday, French Defense Minister Florence Parly sounded the alarm bell about a potential North Korean missile attack on Europe.

Parly’s warning came after Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test on September 3 and launched long-range ballistic missiles in July. Her words appear a thinly veiled call for the strengthening of the European continent’s defenses, but probably have Russia in mind rather than North Korea. Indeed, the odds that a North Korean vector strikes Europe are minimal.

The simple speculation that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may expand its integrated air and missile defense system will elicit a response from Moscow. Russian military activism (from Georgia to Moldova and Ukraine) has upset the Atlantic alliance for the past few years, mostly its member states that were once part of the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc.

NATO contends that its ballistic-missile shield is purely defensive. Officially, it has been developed to face a potential missile menace from a nuclearized Iran. However, while the International Atomic Energy Agency certified on August 31 that Tehran was complying with the 2015 deal to constrain its nuclear-arms program, Russia has repeatedly questioned the need for the Atlantic bloc to maintain a missile defense apparatus in Eastern Europe.

Moscow considers it a threat to the strategic balance in the region and so to its security. Its argument is that if Tehran is no longer a danger to European countries, then NATO’s missile system in Eastern Europe should be removed.

A test for US/NATO extended deterrence

Parly said Pyongyang “could develop ballistic missiles that reach Europe sooner than expected” and that fear of a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula could not be “discarded”.

Some analysts argue that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile has a potential range of 10,400 kilometers. Paris is closer to the Hermit Kingdom than Los Angeles. This is a good reason for improving missile-defense capacities in Europe, even though such factors as Earth’s rotation and payload weight could actually reduce the range of North Korean rockets.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller said on September 5 that the North Korean nuclear crisis was a global problem and a test for the United States’ extended-deterrence policy, which does not limit itself to nuclear weapons and conventional forces, but also includes missile-defense capabilities in Asia as well as in Europe.

The Atlantic alliance is consolidating its ballistic-missile defenses in the Old Continent. An Aegis Ashore unit is deployed in Romania and another one will be hosted in Poland next year. Turkey is the site of a US missile-defense radar, while four multi-mission Aegis-equipped ships are stationed at the Spanish naval base in Rota. Further, NATO’s missile shield in Europe is supported by complementary assets, in particular Patriot interceptors, provided by single allied countries.

Overestimation by Russia

In the view of the Russians, North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat could become NATO’s new justification for maintaining and upgrading ballistic-missile defenses (BMD) in Europe. The Kremlin fears that the US is building up a double containment on its western and eastern flanks. For instance, Moscow recently said Japan’s bid to buy the US-made Aegis Ashore system was “disproportionate” to the security situation in Northeast Asia.

It seems that the perception of US/NATO encirclement, with the simple presence of hostile forces in the post-Soviet space, leads the Kremlin to overestimate the real impact of BMD on its military deterrent. Missile shields remain largely untested and, without a functional system to detect and destroy enemy vectors early in flight, vulnerable to possible multiple strikes.

Furthermore, Aegis Ashore and Patriot systems “cover relatively small areas” near their location of deployment, as they are both terminal-phase defenses, Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, explains.

BMD-capable Aegis naval vessels are more useful, given that they can constantly navigate through the European waters. The problem is that they operate in closed seas such as the Mediterranean and the Baltic, which are situated at the southern and northern ends of Europe respectively, and this limits their ability to protect large swaths of the continent.

But despite all the weaknesses of defense shields, Europe’s crying wolf on Pyongyang will likely contribute to the expansion of the US extended-deterrence framework and, accordingly, to Russian rearmament.

Ultimately, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic challenges are feeding a missile-defense bubble in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.