Despite tenuous efforts by the new government in Kiev to implement a ceasefire and thin promises by Moscow to rein in Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the crisis in that country continues. Although President Putin promises that he will not use force against Ukraine, substantial Russian conventional forces remain poised just across the border. In addition, Western intelligence reports that Russia has been supplying insurgent forces with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons responsible for downing several Ukrainian military helicopters in recent weeks.
For the first time in more than a generation, NATO must confront the very real possibility of major conventional conflict with Russia. This has completely overturned NATO’s defense strategy as well as the budget and force structure plans of virtually all member countries. The Alliance’s Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force General Phillip Breedlove, described NATO’s new strategic challenge very clearly in a recent interview. “For the last 12 to 14 years, we’ve been looking at Russia as a partner. . . . We’ve been making decisions about force structure, basing investments, et cetera, et cetera, looking to Russia as a partner. Now what we see is a very different situation.”
NATO members must confront the reality that their two-decades-long peace dividend is over. Nor can they rely on the United States to carry the burden of the Alliance’s security. Over the past decade, the share of overall Alliance defense spending carried by the U.S. has risen from two thirds to three quarters. Most NATO members have consistently failed to meet the agreed on minimum defense budget target of two percent of GDP. While the rest of the Alliance budgets some $300 billion a year on defense, much of that is misspent. After years of dithering, the Alliance is only just beginning to address critical shortfalls in such capabilities as airborne ISR, aerial refueling, logistics and cyber security. In addition, NATO forces are poorly situated to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
The United States is doing what it can to bolster NATO’s defenses. F-15 and F-16 fighters have been deployed to the Baltic countries. Arleigh Burke-class air and missile defense capable destroyers have been deployed to the Black Sea. The first elements of the European Phased Adaptive Architecture that will provide enhanced theater missile defense for the continent are being deployed to Romania. General Breedlove has urged Congress to reverse planned reductions in the number of U.S. ground troops in Europe that will leave the U.S. Army with only two light infantry brigades forward deployed.
Some NATO members are taking significant steps to improve their defensive capabilities. Finland will soon hold a national referendum to determine whether it should join NATO. Poland, one of the few NATO members to spend two percent of GDP on defense, is moving forward with its plan to deploy an advanced medium-range air defense system. As a result of technical dialogues with Western companies, Poland has decided to conduct a competition between Raytheon Corporation’s Patriot air defense system and the SAMP/T produced by the EUROSAM consortium. The continuing commitment by the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands and Norway to the international program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter holds the prospect for a quantum improvement in NATO’s air defense and strike capabilities.
The reset with Russia, which once held so much promise for continued peace and prosperity in Europe and improved relations between Moscow and Washington, has proved to be a chimera. Instead, the United States and its allies are faced with the need to bolster their defenses in order to deter Russia.
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