Striking absence: Europe’s missile gap and how to close it

Europeans have been quick to enhance their missile defence capabilities. But to properly address the threat of Russia’s missiles and deter broader conflict, they need to complement defensive systems with offensive ones

The US army’s 41st Field Artillery Brigade engages targets with the high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) during Exercise Griffin Shock 23 in Bemowo Piskie, Poland

The opening salvo of Russia’s war on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 comprised over 160 missiles. Since then, thousands more have struck military and civilian targets across the country. Russia’s reliance on long-range cruise and ballistic missiles – launched from platforms on land, in the air, and at sea – has had Europeans rushing to boost their air and missile defences. But they have not sufficiently addressed the gaping hole in their own deep-strike capabilities.

Russia’s missiles may not (yet) have won it the war. But this is no cause for European complacency. Ukraine has frequently managed to intercept Russian missiles with Western-provided air defence systems, demonstrating that these weapons are not invincible. Yet, if it comes to a conflict between Russia and NATO, the conditions would be different. Firstly, Russia’s doctrine and concepts for missile coercion are geared towards conflict with its main strategic adversary: NATO. In a conflict with the alliance, Russia could also exploit fissures between allied governments, including their varying sensitivity to its nuclear threats (which is already affecting decision-making about which weapons to supply to Ukraine) and impose tailored damage to break their political cohesion and ability to act as one. Moreover, Russia continues to withhold some of its most sophisticated missiles, including the 9M729/SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile, which violated and led to the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. The 9M729/SSC-8 has a range of approximately 2,500 kilometres, which would enable Russia to strike most corners of Europe in the event of a conflict with NATO. Russia is also ramping up production to rebuild and adapt its missile arsenal. Every Ukrainian intercept provides Russian missile engineers, operators, and strategists data that they can learn from.

NATO has been studying options for how to counter the threat from Russian missiles, many of which can also deliver nuclear warheads. While missile defence needs to be part of the solution, extending an effective missile shield over the entirety of NATO’s European territory would be both technically infeasible and prohibitively expensive. Even Ukraine, which has the most missile defences in Europe, is only able to selectively protect critical infrastructure and population centres. NATO’s European allies need to complement their defensive systems with offensive ones, which can deny Russia its local force advantage and influence its risk perception by threatening high-value military assets. NATO is therefore updating its capability targets to include a deep-strike requirement, with a range of 300-2,000 kilometres.

European NATO allies have often left it to Washington to contribute strategic capabilities for Europe’s defence and accepted the risk that these would not be available if US forces were tied down in some other region of the world. Even after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Europeans did not decide to field such capabilities themselves.

Today, the risk is undeniably greater. The US provides the bulk of NATO’s long-range strike assets, including stand-off munitions and launch platforms such as surface ships, submarines, and long-range bombers. These are precisely the kinds of capabilities that Washington would need to allocate to the Indo-Pacific in a conflict with China because of the region’s vast oceanic distances. Without Washington’s kit, Europeans would likely be outnumbered, and definitely out-ranged by Moscow’s missile force, calling into question their ability to deter a simultaneous Russian aggression against NATO – be it opportunistic or in coordination with Beijing. The uncertain future of US leadership in NATO if a Republican president comes to power in 2024 further deepens the predicament.

Without Washington’s kit, Europeans would likely be outnumbered, and definitely out-ranged by Moscow’s missile force

European leaders are beginning to recognise this problem but remain far from taking concerted action to address it. The few European missile systems that range further than 300 kilometres are launched from ships or aircraft. National navies and air forces are therefore looking to extend the reach of these platforms. The Royal Netherlands Navy, for example, plans to acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 1,600 kilometres for its frigates and submarines (the United Kingdom has deployed these on submarines since 1998). Various European users of the F-35 stealth fighter, including Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands, are procuring JASSM-ER cruise missiles, which have a range of approximately 1,000 kilometres. However, ships and aircraft would be tasked not just with land-attack missions. Anti-submarine warfare, missile defence, and defensive counter air would likely take priority especially in the early days and weeks of any large-scale conflict to protect NATO forces as they are assembling and being deployed to their respective areas of operation.

Positioning future European deep-strike capabilities

European NATO allies therefore need to invest in dedicated ground-launched deep-strike capabilities. Russia’s Western Military District – which the defence ministry plans to soon split, reconstituting the Leningrad and Moscow Military Districts that existed during the Soviet era – houses the military units and infrastructure that would facilitate and sustain an attack on NATO’s eastern flank, such as command and control centres, logistics and supply hubs, mobile missile launchers, and airfields. To protect the eastern flank and take the security concerns of central and eastern European allies seriously, Europeans require a strike capability that extends to these targets. Given that most of central Europe consists of landmass, ground-launched options are particularly relevant to support NATO’s new defence plan for the region. (The two other regional plans – north and south – have a more maritime focus.) For ground-launched systems to be positioned west of the Oder river and still reach the furthest point in Russia’s Western Military District, they need strike ranges upwards of 1,600 kilometres. Mirroring Russia’s posture by introducing nuclear-tipped ground-launched missiles in a re-run of the 1980s, however, would be imprudent and unnecessary.

For effective deterrence and defence, NATO allies need to develop coherent operational concepts, escalation control strategies, and targeting doctrines for deep strike. The US army’s 56th Artillery Command in Wiesbaden, Germany, will play a key role in its ongoing adoption of such capabilities. Budget documents suggest that the command’s 2nd Multi-Domain Task Force will likely be assigned a Strategic Mid-Range Fires battery in 2024, which is comprised of ground-launched versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Standard Missile-6. To ensure maximum interoperability, Europeans could therefore focus on acquiring these same missiles. Relevant European and American industry stakeholders are currently looking to co-produce missiles for the PATRIOT air-defence system in Europe. A Europe-based production line for Tomahawk cruise missiles to service the Dutch and British navies and a future European ground-launched capability could similarly leverage economies of scale.

Alternatively, Europeans could acquire indigenous ground-launched deep-strike capabilities. In the short term, they could develop ground launchers for existing air- or sea-launched precision munitions and boosters to extend their range. Norway’s Joint Strike Missile/Naval Strike Missile or France’s SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missile (a variant of the British Storm Shadow) may be candidates for such modifications, especially because both have open production lines. If Germany were to restart production of its Taurus cruise missile – to sustain future donations to Ukraine or expand its arsenal upon integration with its Eurofighter jet – this could also be a suitable system to adapt. The UK, France, and Italy could also look to expand their Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon programme to replace SCALP-EG and Strom Shadow from the 2030s for ground-launch options and new partners.

Finally, Europeans will need to acquire the associated “deep-sensing” capabilities for surveillance, targeting, cueing, and command and control for these weapons (another area in which US assets continue to do the heavy lifting for European defence). Europe’s future F-35 fleet of airborne electronic data “vacuums” will go some way to rectifying that imbalance – they might even be able to re-target missiles in flight one day. The EU also promotes various initiatives to boost European intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities, including space-based early warning against missile threats, but these are still in their early stages.

European NATO allies seem to have understood that they can no longer outsource their defence to Washington. But to pull their weight in the alliance and to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian aggression with potentially minimal US support, they ultimately need their own deep-sensing and deep-strike capabilities.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research & Project Coordinator

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