For more than two decades, NATO spending on defense has declined to levels today that are perilously close to disarmament. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly warned NATO that its failure to invest adequately and appropriately in defense places the future of the Alliance at risk. In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on NATO to invest its defense resources both more wisely and strategically.
The immediate issue impacting NATO’s ability to field an adequate military is declining defense budgets. NATO’s ability to develop a strategic investment plan is severely hamstrung by continuing fiscal problems on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, declining defense budgets in virtually all member states have created an environment in which some members will cease to be relevant contributors to collective/global security. Even those countries that are managing to maintain a semblance of a credible defense budget are not providing enough funding to support current forces, programs and operations and also invest adequately in modernization.
NATO has experienced what can only be described as extreme force structure reduction. Overall, forces have been cut by the U.K. and France; the two nations on which the Alliance will have to rely as the core of future expeditionary operations are struggling to maintain a semblance of full spectrum capabilities. Even then, the U.K. will not have a single aircraft carrier for a decade. Retention of nuclear forces are exacting a heavy price in terms of residual defense resources needed to maintain relevant conventional combat power. As former Secretary of Defense Gates recently observed, “With the fairly substantial reductions in defense spending in Great Britain, what we’re finding is that it won’t have full-spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.’’
Some observers point to the still considerable force totals NATO disposes, asserting that this means the Alliance is still a militarily powerful organization. However, this is truly an illusion of capability. Only a small percentage of forces are really deployable. There is a dearth of critical enablers. There is also a lack of sufficient training and enough international exercises to assure that multinational forces have the ability to operate together effectively.
There is no reason to believe NATO will find either the wallet or the will to increase defense spending in the near future. Europe is only just now emerging from the recession that started in 2007, but now faces the possibility of deflation; Germany and the U.K. are showing reasonable growth rates; many other Alliance members, notably the countries of Southern Europe but also France, are still under significant risk of falling back into recession. Therefore, if resources are to be made available to provide for strategic investments they must come as a result of additional force structure reductions and/or changes in the way resources are distributed.
NATO has made some progress towards improving the way it spends scarce resources and acquiring capabilities it has heretofore lacked. There are programs to acquire long-range transport aircraft, aerial refueling tankers and high-altitude surveillance drones.
Here are three additional steps NATO must take in order to improve its military posture:
- Buy the Joint Strike Fighter. One of the most important and potentially far-reaching multinational collaborative initiatives for NATO and Europe is the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by a group of countries including the U.K., Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and Canada. Like its predecessor, the F-16 international program, acquisition of the F-35 will support interoperability between these NATO countries. The F-35 has inherent capabilities that can enhance NATO’s airborne ISR and electronic warfare posture.
- Fix the NATO Response Force (NRF) or disband it. This should be NATO’s number one priority for strategic investments. NATO needs to decide if the NRF is a rapidly deployable military capability, the leading edge of the Alliance’s ability to respond to a wide range of unpredictable crises or, as it is increasing being portrayed, a tool of transformation. Without question, the NRF should be the initial focal point for efforts to improve NATO interoperability. There should also be a close relationship between the NRF and efforts to develop concrete plans under the Connect Forces Initiative (CFI). What better way to improve the deployability of the NRF than by pursuing the kind of training and exercise regime advocated by the CFI. As national units rotate through the NRF they can acquire skills that enhance their overall interoperability.
- Increase their investment in such critical enablers as airborne ISR, intelligence information management systems, automated C3 networks, electronic warfare/suppression of enemy air defenses and rapid logistics. Current programs, while addressing some critical capability gaps, do not go far enough towards investing in those force elements that are absolutely essential to modern military operations, almost without exception. The need for these critical enablers is likely to grow as NATO nations seek to maintain current capabilities rather than pursue costly modernization programs.
 Casandra Vinograd, “Robert Gates warns on UK military spending Cuts,” Associated Press, January 16, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2014/01/16/world/europe/ap-eu-britain-robert-gates.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0
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