One of the most important issues to be addressed at the NATO Alliance’s upcoming summit in Chicago will be progress towards addressing significant capability gaps revealed by military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In his farewell speech in Brussels, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates articulated a rather scathing critique of Alliance shortcomings in both Afghanistan and Libya. Gates warned that “If current trends in the decline of European defence capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Giving added impetus for such an assessment is the new U.S. defense strategy with its so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and a corresponding reduction in U.S. forces in Europe.
The plans and proposals expected to be put forward in Chicago regarding improving NATO’s military capabilities rely to a large degree on improving access to existing or planned forces. There are some significant new investments in critical areas. However, any additional investments will likely have to come from savings achieved through a reduction in existing force structure and restructuring of residual capabilities.
Most observers agree that the Alliance can no longer afford to make promises that cannot be kept. The central issue for the Chicago Summit is whether or not NATO is on a path that will allow it to deploy credible, effective military forces able to meet the evolving threats of the 21st Century.
There are a number of capability areas where NATO can reasonably claim competence, even first class status. These include air superiority, mine warfare, indirect fires, anti-submarine warfare, special operations forces, carrier operations, and armor/anti-armor warfare. Yet as many commentators have pointed out, the Alliance faces the growing challenge of being able to generate, deploy and sustain relatively large conventional forces beyond the boundaries of Europe.
A qualitative assessment of recent national and collective decisions suggests that NATO has made some significant gains in such capability areas as strategic airlift, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and joint and integrated command and control. In other areas such as missile defense, cyber security, logistics and medical support, helicopters and precision strike, there has been only limited progress or the data is lacking to support a conclusion.