No other initiatives better exemplify the best and worst of NATO’s defense aspirations than its missile defense objectives for protecting deployments abroad and for shielding the alliance’s home territory against attack.

After years of study and delay, for example, the alliance’s layered theater missile defense (TMD) program is finally moving ahead. Designed to make all national deployable theater missile systems compatible with the alliance’s Air Command and Control System (ACCS) — now being modernized — the TMD program’s management office will become operational in early 2006.

Soon afterward will be a call for tenders from industry to develop an integration test bed for the TMD system’s low-altitude layer. NATO’s own project, valued at $700 million, is focused on the active-defense portion of TMD.

The catch, however, is that a functioning TMD depends on the precision detection and communication capabilities of ACCS. And that program’s first modernization phase — known as Level of Operational Capability — is plagued with glitches.

The initial NATO contract, worth $500 million, was signed in 1999 with Air Command Systems International , a French-registered company based near Paris and formed by two shareholders, the U.S. defense firm Raytheon and France’s Thales.

“ACCS is the backbone for TMD, but it has a lot of problems to resolve,” a NATO official said . “They’ve put all the new pieces together and it doesn’t work.”

ACCS is intended to combine and automate the planning, tasking and execution of all air operations at the tactical level to seamlessly manage all types of air operations over NATO’s territory and beyond. It will do this by allowing national militaries to integrate their air traffic control, surveillance, air mission control, airspace management and force management functions with the ACCS.

Part of the problem with its update effort is that planners at the alliance’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe military command headquarters in Mons, Belgium, have piled operational demands onto the system. This has added complexity, delay and cost overruns to the project.

As a result, Level of Operational Capability is running 12 to 18 months behind its original target date for operational status in 2005-20 06 .

“At some point, you have to draw the line and say , ‘That’s it. No more requirements, gentlemen, if you want this project to reach completion.’ I think the military guys have understood that now,” the NATO official said.

Since the alliance is looking at about a 15-month delay in getting ACCS’ first-phase modernization ready for testing, the TMD project will have to be paced accordingly , NATO officials said.

Once the TMD program office opens its doors in The Hague early next year, with a staff of approximately 20, it will call for proposals by mid-2006 for the integration test bed .

Although the winning bidder will use the other program’s delay to get the TMD integration test bed ready for trials with Level of Operational Capability toward early 2007, the delay in ACCS still has a knock-on effect on funding.

“We can’t spend much money on TMD until [Level of Operational Capability’s] functioning is stabilized,” the NATO official said.

Missile Defense Debate

A similar coordination fissure runs through the alliance’s interminable debate on missile defense and how to protect its home territory from an incoming attack.

NATO officials constantly refer to the threat of weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation of missile technology and know-how to volatile regions around the world — fears rendered only more acute in Europe by the terrorist attacks against Madrid in March 2004 and London in July.

And yet NATO’s European allies remain deeply divided among themselves and against the United States in their assessment of the missile threats to Europe.

“It’s not a technical issue: The technology is there and waiting to be used, as we’ve seen in the United States,” another NATO source said. “It’s political. Very political.”

Indeed, to design a missile defense system means first agreeing on the threat and where it may originate. And that is something most European countries do not want to advertise for fear of provoking the threat.

“We have problems of instability facing us across the Mediterranean, all around Turkey’s borders, in the Balkans and around the Black Sea and Caucasus regions — areas that will be right next door to the [European Union] when Romania and Bulgaria join the union [tentatively in 2007],” a European diplomat added. “What are we going to do? Point radars and missile heads in specific directions? What kind of impression would that give? It would be a return to a new cold war.”

NATO officials admit the debate on missile defense is moving at a turtle’s pace. Although a massive new 10,000-page study on the architecture, cost, performance criteria and military requirements of missile defense was completed July 12 by a consortium of companies led by San Diego-based Science Applications International Corporation , few in NATO expect it go anywhere fast.

“We’ll give our opinion on it by the end of this year and then we’ll pass it on” to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political authority , a NATO defense planner said . “And then the politicos will start their debate — for a long time, I suspect.”