The NATO juggernaut is rolling forward to next month’s summit in Chicago. A key theme of the summit will be improvements to the Alliance’s capability to defend its members and meet evolving threats. NATO has promised concrete deliverables in Chicago including a long-term capability strategy for the so-called “Smart Defense” initiative which focuses on greater prioritization, specialization and cooperation among the NATO members so as to improve actual military capabilities. NATO has already announced that this strategy will consist of three parts: what is called a tangible package of multinational projects to address critical capability shortfalls; a set of longer-term multinational projects that include missile defense, Alliance ground surveillance and air policing; and, strategic projects for 2020 covering areas such as joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and air-to-air refueling.
This focus on improving NATO’s military capabilities, while not new, is certainly welcome. The issue has been around as long as the Alliance itself. It was given additional salience as a result of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan. Many member countries deployed without adequate intelligence, logistics, lift or transport. Then there was the Libyan intervention. This conflict showed the good, the bad and the ugly of NATO. What was good was the ability of a number of NATO nations, including France, to conduct a combined air and naval campaign that resulted in the defeat of the Gaddafi regime. The bad were the clear capability gaps NATO displayed in such areas as aerial refueling, ISR, precision strike, intelligence analysis, electronic warfare and tactical air control. The ugly were the refusal of some NATO members, notably Germany, to participate and the relative scarcity of deployable assets from an Alliance that, excluding the United States, spends more than $300 billion a year on defense.
Depending on how you want to look at it, Smart Defense is either a glass half full or half empty. On the positive side, the Alliance has agreed on priority capability areas that need to be addressed and, in some cases, has taken steps to fix deficits. For example, NATO has improved its strategic airlift through two programs both of which began before Smart Defense was created: the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution by which 14 members have pooled their resources to charter six Antonov An-124-100 transport aircraft and the Strategic Airlift Capability which centers on the acquisition of three Boeing C-17s. On missile defense, NATO has integrated a number of national sensor and command and control systems which will also be tied into the new U.S. Phased Adaptive Architecture. In addition, several countries are upgrading their air and missile surveillance capabilities. Finally, 13 member countries have banded together to acquire five Block 40 Global Hawk high-altitude UAVs that will be equipped with advanced ground surveillance radar.
On the half empty side, the rationalization of NATO military capabilities and the freeing up of resources to spend on priority areas has only just begun. There is still too much redundancy and overlap, often in non-critical mission areas. NATO is committed to an integrated ballistic missile defense capability but has yet to acquire such critical elements as long-range interceptors even though a number of countries could deploy the Standard Missile 3. Investments in intelligence analysis, logistics and electronic warfare are still lacking. Finally, NATO has not made sufficient investments in the weapons that won the Libyan campaign, precision strike systems.
So, NATO is heading for Chicago able to say that it has made progress but at the same time still suffering from many of the gaps revealed by Afghanistan and Libya. With potential conflicts looming over the horizon in places such as Syria, there is no time left for more studies and committee meetings. NATO needs to be wise as well as just smart when it comes to investing in military capabilities.
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