European missile defense proponents have long feared they will face a so-called Hobson's choice—gain a missile shield by signing up to U.S. technology, or do without.

There are indications that this concern is about to play out, with some observers in NATO suggesting one effort to jump-start the building of an expanded European missile shield by a pooling concept where the alliance collectively buys some Raytheon SM-3 interceptors for use on European ships. This would add capacity to the magazine of firepower and sensing capabilities offered by the U.S. Aegis ships with the SM-3 IA missile. German and Dutch frigates could be equipped with the weapons, says Lt. Gen. Friedrich Ploeger, a German officer and deputy for NATO's allied air command, based in Germany.

But that proposal is likely to run afoul of some deep-rooted industrial interests in Europe. France is eager to build its own technical expertise in this area. A recent French senate report urges European states to join forces, rather than rely on the U.S., which France finds to be an unreliable partner. The U.S. reversal on the trinational Medium Extended Air Defense System (Meads) influenced the finding. Even so, France has quietly subcontracted with Raytheon on interceptor studies, according to industry officials.

Deliberations on the SM-3 road map for Europe could be a bellwether for how the alliance can or, possibly, cannot proceed with its desire to form a unified and layered missile defense architecture with significant contribution from European countries.

Prior to leaving office, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates chided European allies for relying too heavily on U.S. contributions for common defense activities. However, even the best intentions from NATO members to embark on a unified missile defense will be complex owing to the structure of the alliance itself as well as funding constraints in Europe and the U.S.

NATO embraced an expanded vision of missile defense as a core mission in the fall; having previously agreed to protect deployed forces, it now has also taken on the territorial defense role. But much of the groundwork is still in the initial stage.

After many delays, there is finally progress, with alliance officials having fleshed out technical details to support a plan to declare initial operational capability at a meeting next April. Plans today, however, are limited to funding for linking the command-and-control architectures of NATO, with its Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) system, and the U.S., using its Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) system.

A simulated flight test is slated for this week to evaluate the interface between the two command-and-control systems, Ploeger says. Another test, slated for November, will include an actual hit-to-kill attempt—with the interceptor flying from Crete, and a short-range target launched from 100 km (62 mi.) away, he says. Ploeger spoke last week at the Space and Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville, Ala.

But while this C2 linkage will be a step forward—technologically and symbolically—for the alliance, it is doubtful that money will be available to strengthen the missile shield by adding more firepower and robustness to the network within a relevant timeframe. (Iran is expected to have long-range ballistic missile technology in hand in 2015-20 that could threaten major European cities.)

Ploeger acknowledges that the NATO missile defenses are few, and contributions from European nations are limited to legacy lower-tier systems, with the U.S. providing high-level protection through the Aegis-based Phased Adaptive Approach. Last year, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance contribution would cost €200 million ($286 million) over the next 10 years to upgrade ALTBMD, with Ploeger suggesting the C2 portion would be in the “low hundreds of millions,” likely the lion's share of the obligation.

Ploeger proposed the SM-3 pooled-buy concept during the conference, suggesting that German and Dutch frigates could be equipped with the missiles and add to the capabilities against longer-range threats that the U.S. already plans to provide.

Ships owned by the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark already have MK41 launchers, which are suitable for the SM-3 interceptor.

However, SM-3 manufacturer Raytheon says a data-link upgrade would be needed to mate the missiles with some of the NATO ships' sensor capabilities. The company has been working for at least two years on a dual-band data link that would allow SM-3 to operate with not only the S-band Aegis radar but also the X-band sensors used on other platforms and command-and-control nodes, says Ed Miyashiro, a Raytheon Missile Systems vice president.

The data link is developed and prototyped, he says, and Raytheon hopes to garner sponsorship for production.

But support is not likely to come in the near term from NATO. Ploeger says the alliance's current commitment is limited to the C2 segment.

Miyashiro says Raytheon has considered funding additional work. But the lack of movement from either the company or NATO on this technology—which is described as relatively inexpensive—is a sign of the challenges ahead in distributing the responsibility for missile defenses across the alliance.

Raytheon may proceed with the technology work and apply it to the SM-2 missile for integration on the Zumwalt destroyer, a next-generation U.S. Navy ship.

However, the form and fit are sized to be “dropped in” to the SM-3 when the funding is available for further work, Miyashiro says.