During the Cold War, the U.S. accounted for 50 percent of NATO military spending; today, the U.S. accounts for more than 75 percent. If we remove U.S. defense spending from the picture, NATO members spend, on average, just 1.3 percent of GDP on their armed forces. In fact, at last month’s NATO summit in Warsaw, the alliance bluntly noted that only five of NATO’s 28 members “meet the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.” With Moscow menacing Europe and starting Cold War 2.0, this has to change.
There has always been a capabilities gap between the U.S. and its NATO allies. But there can no longer be a commitment gap. As the Warsaw Summit communique concluded, “Our overall security and defense depend both on how much we spend and how we spend it.”
President Reagan called NATO “a living commitment of the nations of the West to the defense of democracy and individual liberty” and the guarantor of “the longest period of peace and prosperity in modern history.”
Indeed, since its founding, NATO has been an insurance policy against worst-case scenarios. For the United States, NATO serves as a hedge against disaster and diminishes the likelihood of the very worst of the worst-case scenarios: another European conflict triggering another global war. For NATO’s other members, NATO is a security guarantee backed by the United States. Without that guarantee, there is no security, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine.
NATO’s insurance policy depends on credibility, which depends on military muscle. Regrettably, NATO has allowed its muscles to atrophy in recent years.
Turkey invested 5 percent of GDP on defense in 2001, but just 1.56 percent today; France 2.5 percent in 2001, 1.78 percent today; Italy 2 percent in 2001, 1 percent today; Germany 1.4 percent in 2009, 1.1 percent today; Canada 1.4 percent in 2009, 0.9 percent today. Britain is using accounting tricks to remain above the 2-percent threshold. U.S. defense spending has tumbled from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent today.
These years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness,” according to the British government. For example:
Post-recession austerity measures have reduced the Royal Navy from 89 ships to 65. Britain had two aircraft carriers in 2008 but none today. Britain’s combat-aircraft fleet has shrunk from 189 warplanes to 149; the Joint Helicopter Command had 257 aircraft in 2008 but just 164 today.
Only 42 of Germany’s 109 top-of-the-line Eurofighters are in flying condition. At the height of the Cold War, West Germany had 2,125 Leopard II tanks. Today, the German army has 225. The Washington Post reports that just 70 of Germany’s 180 armored vehicles are capable of deployment, and only seven of the German navy’s 43 helicopters are flight-ready.
The French military eliminated 8,000 personnel in 2014, mothballed 19 warships between 2009 and 2012, and slashed the size of its air fleet by 30 percent between 2008 and 2013, as AEI details.
The U.S. Army had 570,000 active-duty troops in 2012, 490,000 in 2015, and by 2018 just 450,000. The Army has around 26,000 troops in Europe today, down from 40,000 in 2012, down from 300,000 at the height of the Cold War. As a consequence, Army commanders are trying “to make 30,000 [troops] look and feel like 300,000,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army-Europe, explains.
“In more peaceful times, it was right to reduce defense spending,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg soberly observes. “But we do not live in peaceful times.”
To revive the common defense, each NATO member must lift its defense budget to NATO’s 2-percent standard by a date certain; each member should invest in such a way that serves the most urgent needs of the alliance; and Washington should lead from the front by reversing sequestration’s devastating cuts.
Back to Deterrence
If that’s the bad news, the good news is that NATO is rising to the challenge.
Sixteen NATO members increased defense spending in 2015. European defense spending is up 8.3 percent in 2016. Washington has quadrupled U.S. military spending earmarked for Europe—from $789 million to $3.4 billion. Germany, for the first time in 25 years, will expand its military endstrength by 14,300 personnel. Norway increased defense spending 9.8 percent this year. The Czech Republic plans to increase the size of its military 63 percent by 2025. After years of waning commitment, the U.S. Army is increasing its deterrent strength in Europe by permanently basing three fully-manned brigades on the continent. And importantly, NATO’s new military commander, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, comes to Europe not from the counterinsurgency campaigns of the Middle East, or the nation-building mission in Afghanistan, or the shadow wars against ISIS and al Qaeda, but from the 38th Parallel, where U.S. troops serve as a 24/7 deterrent against North Korean invasion.
NATO’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force is up and running, with seven allies committed to rapid-reaction deployments within 48 hours of getting the call. Britain is leading a Joint Expeditionary Force, comprised of “high readiness” units from several NATO allies. The alliance has stood up two multinational headquarters—one in Poland and another in Romania. NATO has returned to a routine and robust schedule of high-intensity, full-spectrum exercises—300 in 2015 alone. And most important of all, the alliance authorized during its Warsaw Summit an “enhanced forward presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland “to unambiguously demonstrate” its determination to defend these easternmost members of NATO.
The forward presence in the Balts and Poland will feature four battalion-sized battlegroups—one each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland—spearheaded by the U.S., Canada, Germany and Britain.
Why is all this necessary? The answer is found in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has lopped off part of Georgia, annexed Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine, waged cyberwar against the Baltics, threatened Poland with nuclear attack, massed troops on the borders of NATO’s newest members, flouted arms treaties, and revived the dangerous Cold War-era practice of conducting mock bombing runs, buzzing NATO warships and testing NATO air defenses. There were 160 Russian incursions into Baltic airspace in 2015.
Another 2015 data point: Putin unveiled a new military doctrine focused on confronting NATO and pledging the use of Russia’s armed forces “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation.” Given that there are five million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin has reserved for himself the right to determine when, where and whether they need to be protected—this is a recipe for something much more complicated than a new cold war. As if to underscore his intentions, Putin recently reactivated the 1st Guards Tank Army, a large armored force based in western Russia equipped with some 500 T-72 and T-80 main battle tanks.
Between 2004 and 2013, Moscow increased military spending 108 percent. Russia’s 2015 military outlays were 26-percent larger than in 2014.
NATO notes that, thanks to Moscow’s behavior, the security situation in the Baltic Sea region and Black Sea region has “deteriorated”; that “Russia’s aggressive actions…military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force…fundamentally challenge the alliance”; that Russia’s lunge into Syria poses “risks and challenges for the security of allies”; and that Russia’s military activity “continues to undermine peace, security and stability across the region.”
“The forces in Europe over the past twenty years have been sized for a situation where we were looking at Russia as a partner,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove in 2015, when he served as NATO commander. “What we see now, of course, is Russia has demonstrated it is not a partner.”
To be sure, Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But Putin has the advantage of proximity; his asymmetric, anonymous brand of “hybrid warfare” has proven effective; he possesses a massive nuclear arsenal; and his army retains enough punch to reincorporate Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It’s not unthinkable that the Baltics could be next. As Putin himself boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too.”
Putin rationalizes his belligerence by arguing that NATO started it. Russia’s recently-released national security strategy blames tensions in Europe on “expansion of the alliance.” This echoes Putin’s assertion that NATO violated agreements at the end of the Cold War not to move eastward. The problem with Putin’s narrative is that it doesn’t correspond with reality. As the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer details, Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement.” Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”
But Putin won’t be confused by the facts. He seems intent on changing the settled outcomes (and borders) of the Cold War, which makes NATO’s renewed cohesion and revived capabilities so important.
As President Reagan observed during another time marred by Moscow’s aggression, “The NATO allies must show they have the will and capacity to deter any conventional attack or any attempt to intimidate us.