At this month’s NATO Summit in Chicago, the alliance’s leaders will roll out a specific set of proposals under the banner of “Smart Defense” for how to improve their deployable military strength. Smart Defense, simply defined, is a way of doing more without having more. NATO leaders, including the Obama Administration, recognize that the resources for defense are becoming scarcer. Although together the 27 members of NATO aside from the United States spend around $300 billion annually, the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. As demonstrated in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Libya, despite having more than 1.5 million men and women in uniform and operating hundreds or even thousands of aircraft, tanks, ships and helicopters, it is very hard for NATO to deploy and sustain even a moderately-sized force. In key areas such as aerial refueling aircraft, unmanned vehicles, electronic warfare and precision weapons, the alliance has well-recognized and ongoing deficits. In part, this is a function of every member of the alliance being a fully sovereign nation that buys pretty much what it wants and can choose whether or not to participate in an operation. Germany, one of NATO’s largest members, is in Afghanistan but refused to play in Libya. As a consequence, for example, the European members of the alliance had no capability to neutralize Libyan air defenses.
One of the key tenets of Smart Defense is for NATO members to pool assets so as to create more robust capabilities that will be made available to support whatever operations the alliance or a coalition of members decides to undertake. NATO has already done this in such areas as strategic lift, airborne ground surveillance and aerial refueling. In a lot of areas there are no arrangements yet for pooling assets or such arrangements are not supported by the necessary planning, training, exercises, maintenance and logistics.
One of the simplest ways of pooling assets is for countries to acquire the same systems. When several nations acquire the same system not only do they generally get a better price but there are advantages in terms of returns to scale, reduced spare parts inventories and a sharing of installations for training and maintenance. NATO has done this in the multi-nation program for the A400 transport. The best example of this form of pooling is the international F-16 program. Over the years, some 4,500 F-16s have been built and they are currently operated by 25 countries around the world, eight of whom are NATO members. Belgian, Danish and Norwegian F-16s together conducted more than 30 percent of allied strike sorties in the Libyan operation.
One of smartest examples of the practical pooling of assets is the international program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A number of NATO allies including Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey are not only acquiring the Joint Strike Fighter but are participating in the development and production of the aircraft. At least for now, Great Britain is the only other country besides the United States that is acquiring the STOVL variant, the F-35B.
Not only does the international program reduce the cost of acquiring fifth-generation fighters for all participants, but there will be tremendous advantages to be gained by virtue of the global supply chain, availability of shared facilities and standardized procedures. When it comes to conducting actual combat operations, the “pool” of F-35s in NATO will be one of the smartest defense investments the alliance has ever made.
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