In December 1983, amid heightened “second Cold War” tensions, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and his West German counterpart, Manfred Wörner, agreed to a $3 billion program (worth over $9 billion today) to the strengthening of NATO air defenses along the central front: the intra-German border with the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. Four decades later, under his impression Russia’s missile war against Ukraine, NATO leaders are once again grappling with the strategic, operational and technical complexities of the air defense mission. They should revisit the 40-year-old US-West German pact for inspiration.
Throughout the first half of the Cold War, ground-based air defense, or GBAD, was deployed to support NATO Forward Defense Strategy for Central Europe. The Nike and Hawk surface-to-air missiles were developed in a two-layer zone in West Germany. By the 1970s, after several improvement programs, both systems had exhausted their modernization potential, while the Soviet threat steadily increased.
Moreover, as NATO turned to Flexible response — emphasizing incremental, mostly conventional options over massive nuclear retaliation — there was a desire for a non-nuclear replacement for Nike. But this required greater speed, range and agility of the interceptors, a leap in sensor and guidance technology, and improvements in command, control and communication systems. The Patriot was to provide this capability upgrade to US and allied ground-based air defenses.
With defense budgets squeezed by other modernization priorities, Bonn and Washington entered into a complex cost-sharing agreement to arm the West German Bundeswehr 36 Patriot fire units, eventually having a total of 288 missile launchers with over 2,300 interceptors. Twelve fire units will be purchased from Bonn entirely and another 12 will be supplied from Washington. Twelve more would be loaned to West Germany by the United States for an initial period of 10 years. all would be manned by about 2,000 Bundeswehr troops.
Bonn and Washington also agreed to procure several dozen Roland fire units – a Franco-German mobile short-range surface-to-air missile system – to protect US and West German airfields in the country. These, too, would be operated by Bundeswehr troops. The Cold War ended before all Patriot systems reached the now-reunified Germany.
In the post-Cold War period, costly air defenses were a welcome target for cuts in military budgets across Europe. The attempt to develop the US-Germany-Italy medium range air defense system failed. Anti-UAV capabilities have also received little attention. of the German Air Force Friederike Hartung recent study provides an excellent overview of the changing role of the Bundeswehr’s shrinking GBAD capability after 1990, barely able to keep up a dozen Patriot batteries and nothing else when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But the gaps are even wider elsewhere in Europe.
Russia’s missile and drone attacks on military and civilian targets across Ukraine, and the shock of the war more broadly, prompted a hasty response by European leaders to finally follow through on NATO’s plans to rebuild allied air defenses. By donating various systems, they helped Kiev set up the densest air defense bubble on the continent. But this further burdened the European possibilities.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz European Sky Shield Initiativeor ESSI, tries to concentrate demand and leverage economies of scale for off-the-shelf GBAD systems, notably the Patriot and the German-made IRIS-T SLM. While 18 of Germany’s European partners have signed the initiative to date, some have criticized the choice of systems included (the Franco-Italian SAMP/T is not on the list, for example). Paris has raised concerns about the strategic implications of Berlin’s decision to buy Israel’s Arrow 3 defense against extra-atmospheric threats, worrying it signals a lack of confidence in deterrence and could undermine strategic stability. Warsaw, meanwhile, decided years ago to modernize all levels of the Polish GBAD infrastructure. He saw no benefit from joining the German-led initiative.
There are several avenues for further broadening and deepening European cooperation in GBAD. The new Polish government has outlined in its agenda for the first 100 days to follow its predecessor’s plan to acquire six Patriot batteries and now also join ESSI. The desired configuration of Poland’s Integrated Battle Command System for the new Patriot batteries was previously seen as a technical obstacle to such a move, but early expressions of interest from other Europeans in the capacity could pave the way, thus lowering the price for Warsaw and expanding the initiative with a key Eastern European ally.
The mechanism of the 1983 agreement for US GBAD fire units to be operated by West German soldiers could serve as a model for moving ESSI from a buyers’ club to a more integrated European pillar in NATO’s air and missile defense architecture. Instead of deploying their own troops to the eastern front, some Western European allies may find it easier to procure the hardware and then have Estonian, Polish or Romanian personnel handle it. This would further incentivize standardization and move the European GBAD from interoperable to interchangeable.
The first European investments to expand industrial capacity for air defense systems are already benefiting Ukraine as well. A significant part of the growing production of interceptors for IRIS-T, for example, goes to Ukraine. The installation of a regular Patriot Advanced Capability-2 Guidance Enhanced Missile production facility in Germany will also help replenish its stockpile. But to get more urgently needed launchers and fire units there, the loan model of the 1983 agreement could be attractive to Ukraine’s partners by reducing the direct financial burden compared to donations.
Today, NATO’s border with Russia is twice the length of the Cold War internal-German dividing line. Extending an effective missile shield across NATO’s entire European territory—or even just front-line allies—would be both technically infeasible and prohibitively expensive. NATO’s European allies must complement the efforts to strengthen GBAD with investments in deep strike capabilities. But to promote cooperation in these areas, they do not need to reinvent the wheel. Their archives have plenty of inspiration.
Rafael Loss is the coordinator for pan-European data projects in the Berlin office of the European Council on External Relations. He is an expert on German and European foreign and security policy, European integration, transatlantic relations and nuclear policy.
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