In purely quantitative terms, NATO constitutes a powerful military machine. NATO at 27 members (not including the United States) has around 3 million men and women in uniform, possesses over 2,000 combat aircraft, 500 naval vessels (including six aircraft carriers) and more than 5,000 tanks and armored fighting vehicles, and spends nearly $300 billion a year on defense.
The problem is that those numbers conceal more than they reveal. The majority of people in uniform are non-deployable beyond national borders. Even though NATO has lots of aircraft, too many of these are air defense interceptors. Furthermore, the Alliance lacks the logistics, weapons, aerial refueling capability and ISR systems to allow more than a small fraction of its strike aircraft to be deployed usefully in combat. NATO ground forces remain largely a historical anachronism, acquired at a time when the Alliance’s sole mission of note was to defend the Continent against a Soviet conventional invasion.
NATO desperately needs to take hard look at itself. The way to do this is through a process known as net assessment. This is a process created in the United States in the 1970s by the Pentagon’s eponymous office of the same name to establish a credible baseline judgment of the relative military strength of the U.S versus the Soviet Union. In the words of the “Godfather” of net assessment, Andrew Marshall:
“Our notion of a net assessment is that it is a careful comparison of U.S. weapon systems, forces, and policies in relation to those of other countries. It is comprehensive, including description of the forces, operational doctrines and practices, training regime, logistics, known or conjectured effectiveness in various environments, design practices and their effect on equipment costs and performance, and procurement practices and their influence on cost and lead times.”
NATO is in desperate need of a net assessment that looks beyond simple measures such as overall defense expenditures or number of individuals in uniform. What fraction of current forces and equipment is really deployable? In what areas has the Alliance overinvested and which need additional capabilities? No less a figure than the British Prime Minister, David Cameron called for a net assessment as part of NATO’s effort to remain relevant in the 21st Century.
“President Obama and I argued that NATO should consider a process, not dissimilar to the strategic reviews that were recently carried out in Britain and America, taking a rigorous look at the threats we face today, prioritizing the capabilities we need to meet those threats — not the capabilities we needed for the fights of yesterday — and taking the hard decisions to cut some programs in order to invest in others.”
As the Alliance or its members move forward with major investments in new capabilities such as the Global Hawk Block 40, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, theater missile defenses and A400 transports it needs to have a better idea of where to devote scarce defense resources.
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