NATO Forces Approach Financial Day of Reckoning
Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have entered an era of austerity in defense spending. In Europe, nearly all of the major NATO allies have started cutting their defense budgets. In the United States, the looming threat of a budgetary sequester has portended steep across-the-board cuts in U.S. military expenditures. Financial and economic constraints on both continents have begun to impede NATO's ability to provide security in the coming decade. Alliance members will have to find ways to provide security with fewer resources.
The cuts thus far have been made with little coordination among allies. If this trend persists, NATO risks losing critical capabilities, while U.S. and European forces will find it increasingly difficult to operate together. As the United States focuses greater attention on Asia and the Pacific in its defense policy, pressure is likely to grow on the European allies to take greater responsibility for security in areas, such as the Maghreb (northwest Africa), where they have strong interests. Several additional steps need to be taken in the short run to sustain the alliance over the long run.
The increased focus in U.S defense strategy on the Asia-Pacific region does not mean that the United States is about to abandon Europe. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed, "Europe is and remains America's partner of first resort." But in the coming decade, the United States will expect its European allies to shoulder more of the burden for managing crises within Europe and along its periphery. The United States will still be engaged politically and militarily in managing these crises, but it may play more of a backup role, as was the case in the 2011 military intervention in Libya.
Accounting for European Forces
As a result of the European defense cuts under way and those anticipated in the next several years, the armies, navies, and air forces of America's major NATO European allies are being reduced. Importantly, these are not simply "salami slice" reductions whereby a certain percentage of existing force structure or planned equipment purchases are being cut. In contrast to the post–Cold War defense reductions that took place in the NATO European militaries in the 1990s, today several nations are eliminating important capabilities entirely.
The defense cuts have been driven by the need to reduce large budget deficits — not by a change in the nature of external threats.
The armed forces of America's European NATO allies are rapidly reaching the point at which their remaining air, land, and naval elements are so small that they would experience significant difficulty if a future mission required either a large initial commitment of force or a large rotation base of units and personnel to sustain a protracted operation, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. In all cases, the defense cuts have been driven by the need to reduce large budget deficits — not by a change in the nature of external threats.
Seven NATO allies — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Poland — together represent more than 80 percent of NATO Europe's defense spending. In Britain, the government is undertaking a draconian downsizing of its armed forces, including the 2011 decommissioning of the Royal Navy's flagship aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal. The British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force all face substantial reductions. In an attempt to bridge the emerging capability gaps, Britain joined France in signing a defense cooperation treaty in November 2010.
France is more militarily engaged in NATO now than at any time since the 1960s, fielding sizable ground and air forces in Afghanistan and its aircraft carrier in NATO operations in Libya. As it has done in the past when facing budgetary austerity, Paris will seek to protect its major weapon programs by stretching out procurement even at the price of inefficiencies and higher unit costs. Given the budget pressure facing the new French government, further defense cuts are likely. Therefore, though France may be a willing partner, its capabilities will be limited.
Germany plans to reduce defense spending by a quarter over the next four years and by $10 billion (or €7.8 billion) in 2013 alone. If these cuts are implemented as planned, the entire German armed forces will number 180,000 personnel; by contrast, 20 years ago Germany had twice that many active-duty soldiers in the army alone, not including the air force and the navy.
Italy, like other NATO Europe nations, underestimated the cost of converting to an all-volunteer force. The Italian armed forces have had to slash their operations and maintenance budgets to ensure the readiness of those forces deploying to Afghanistan. As in the case of the French and German armies, the Italian Army will maintain several heavy brigades but at reduced readiness.
AP IMAGES/CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI
U.S. soldiers stand next to a Patriot surface-to-air missile battery at an army base in Morag, Poland. On November 21, 2012, Turkey's government requested the deployment of NATO's Patriot missiles to bolster its defenses along its border with Syria and to prevent a spillover of the civil war in that nation.
The Spanish armed forces are attempting to respond in similar ways. All three Spanish services will preserve their major procurement programs by stretching out their 15-year plans to 20 years. Similar to Italy, Spain has cut its operations and maintenance budgets to protect procurement programs and force structure, albeit downsized. As in Italy, though, this attempt is held hostage to the ongoing euro crisis, the outcome of which may further limit Spanish defense spending.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch government has imposed cuts on its armed forces that constrain their capacity to conduct expeditionary operations. Overall, the Dutch armed forces are being reduced to the point where they will have only a marginal capacity to project military power. Their traditional contributions of maritime forces, which are well suited to operating in coastal waters and are in high demand in the alliance, are targeted for reduction as well.
Poland stands out as the only European ally that has managed to increase its defense budget, by 7 percent in 2011 and 2012 — an impressive rise at a time of austerity measures across Europe. In 2009, Warsaw adopted an ambitious ten-year modernization plan to replace equipment and to enhance interoperability, deployability, and sustainability. In 2010, Poland joined Germany and France, the three of which compose the Weimar Triangle, in pledging to strengthen their intermilitary coordination and cooperation. While Poland has the smallest defense budget of the seven key NATO Europe allies, it consistently spends close to the 2 percent level desired by NATO. If Poland is able to sustain this trajectory, its significance as a key NATO ally will grow.
Doing More with Less
The following measures could help NATO members provide security with fewer resources:
Pooling and Sharing. European governments have begun to pay greater attention to the idea of pooling and sharing resources. But pooling and sharing is no panacea. It can help to rationalize defense expenditures and reduce costs, but it cannot make up for sustained drops in spending. Furthermore, some states fear that if they merge part of their armed forces with those of another state, they will be pressured to participate in a mission because their pooling partner wants to take part. Others have the opposite fear: that when they want to use a joint unit, their partner may prevent them from doing so. Many states are also concerned about "free riding" — that poorer states will enjoy the benefits of pooling and sharing without contributing much themselves.
Leapfrogging. The strategy of "leapfrogging" — cutting defense expenditures heavily today while investing in new types of capabilities — may prove to be an effective way of coping with technological changes, emerging threats, and declining budgets. The question is whether NATO Europe is prepared to sustain even a minimum investment in new capabilities to ensure that a leapfrogging strategy is not just a leap-down strategy of more complete long-term disarmament.
Informal Ad Hoc Coalitions. The Libyan intervention showed that internal differences within the alliance may make it difficult for NATO to obtain a consensus to engage in some missions beyond Europe's borders. As a result, we are likely to see coalitions of allies operating outside a NATO context, as Britain, France, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar did in Libya on the ground, even as they participated in the NATO-led efforts in the air. This highlights the importance of sustaining interoperability among U.S. forces and those of individual NATO allies.
British-French Defense Cooperation. The United States should encourage Britain and France to intensify the defense cooperation they initiated with their November 2010 treaty. This treaty is important for the effort by Britain and France to maintain an aircraft carrier fleet that could assist the United States during any future battle to contain an Iranian assertion of regional hegemony. Britain's firm engagement with Europe is critical to maintaining NATO's political and military vitality. Without strong British participation, it will be difficult to build a strong European defense identity within NATO.
Crisis Management in the Maghreb. Washington should encourage NATO Europe to take lead responsibility for managing crises in the Maghreb — a region in which the southern alliance members have strong historical interests. As part of this new division of labor, the United States should encourage France, Britain, and Italy, together with Spain, to assume primary responsibility for ensuring peace and stability in the region and to maintain forces capable of carrying out this task; the United States would play a supporting role. In particular, the United States should encourage the French and British to widen the scope of their military cooperation to include closer integration of their military forces with those of Italy and Spain.
AP IMAGES/VIRGINIA MAYO
NATO foreign ministers meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on December 4, 2012, to weigh Turkey's request for Patriot anti-missile systems. The next day, NATO approved Turkey's request, with the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands signaling their willingness to contribute missiles.
The Weimar Triangle and Baltic Region. Germany should be encouraged to assume greater responsibility for security and stability in Eastern Europe. The United States should urge Germany to maintain a robust ground force for this purpose. Germany should also be encouraged to intensify defense cooperation with Poland within the framework of the Weimar Triangle and to work closely with Denmark and Sweden to ensure the security of the Baltic region. In addition, defense cooperation should be strengthened among NATO, Sweden, and Finland.
Sustaining the Alliance
As the United States focuses more on Asia in the coming decade, Europe and NATO may become less central in U.S. strategy than they have been in the past. However, U.S. officials should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Cold War may be over, but NATO continues to serve a number of important security functions.
NATO is the primary framework for coordinating transatlantic security cooperation. This task is very important at a time when the European Union is facing a major political and financial crisis that has slowed — and could possibly derail — the process of European integration and cooperation. NATO Europe plays a critical role in maintaining the infrastructure and lines of communication that would sustain a U.S.-led strategy to contain Iran. NATO helps to reduce defense duplication and prevent the renationalization of defense. Without NATO, the individual alliance members would be forced to spend considerably more money on defense than they currently do.
NATO provides a crucial mechanism for managing the nuclear issue and coordinating Western nuclear policy. This function is likely to become more important in the future, given the uncertainties surrounding Iran's nuclear policy.
NATO also provides an insurance policy against the emergence of a resurgent Russia. This is particularly important for the new members from Central and Eastern Europe, who remain concerned that Russia, once it has recovered from the weakness and turmoil evident after the collapse of the Soviet Union, could once again pose a threat to its smaller, less-powerful neighbors.
Thus, there remain strong reasons for maintaining a vital NATO alliance. It is important for the United States and the European members of NATO to candidly recognize that the nature and magnitude of the upcoming defense cuts in NATO Europe are very worrisome. Arguing for smart defense or for pooling and sharing is fine, but it does not change the fact that America's NATO allies will, by the mid-2010s, have much less military capability than they do in 2013.
The ability of NATO's European members to guarantee their own security in the immediate vicinity of Europe, much less in areas farther afield where their interests might be threatened, such as in the Greater Middle East, is rapidly eroding. To protect their own interests, as well as to avoid becoming dependent on the United States to a dangerous extent, the European members of the alliance will have to arrest the sharp downward spiral of their defense capabilities.
NATO has been a major force of stability in the world for nearly seven decades. For NATO to retain its political and military relevance, the pending austerity cuts among the European allies will need to be closely coordinated in the short run and arrested in the long run, lest the alliance jeopardize important capabilities it is likely to need in the coming decades.