Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: What is NATO Good For?

Fri, 02/03/2012 - 3:01pm

In my Foreign Policy column, I explain how the U.S. pivot to Asia could give the military alliance a chance to find a new identity.


BRUSSELS — In a briefing delivered at NATO headquarters on Jan. 30, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that "NATO is the most successful alliance in history." Rasmussen and his colleagues are hoping that success lies not only in the past but in the future, too. While 2011 was NATO's busiest year ever for military operations -- with ongoing stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo and a surprise seven-month air campaign over Libya -- the alliance still struggles to define a convincing organizing principle that will be relevant in the future, a problem it has struggled with since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, NATO's leaders may now find the compelling rationale for alliance's future, and the strongest motivation for long-needed institutional reform, on the far side of the world. The emerging security rivalry between the United States and China, and the U.S. government's "pivot" away from Europe to address this challenge, may now focus the minds of European statesmen on their own security shortcomings like nothing else has since the end of the Cold War.

Before NATO's leaders can give full attention to the alliance's future missions and strategy, they must first attend to a heavy backlog of unfinished projects. In May, NATO will hold a heads-of-government summit in Chicago in an attempt to clear away up some old business and make way for contemplating the alliance's future.

Afghanistan will naturally dominate the "old business" agenda. This week, on the flight to a preparatory meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have preempted the upcoming discussion on Afghanistan when he revealed the Obama administration's intention to suspend direct combat operations by U.S. forces by mid-2013, up to 18 months earlier than previously assumed. This early switch to a purely training and advisory role for U.S. forces closely followed last week's decision by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan next year, instead of in 2014.

At the last NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, alliance leaders pledged to maintain the current military mission in Afghanistan through 2014, when they projected it would be possible to complete a transition to Afghan security forces. The Chicago summit will have to assess whether a new timeline is now required. Leaders will also have to discuss how NATO and the rest of the international community intend to support -- seemingly in perpetuity -- the large Afghan army and national police force after the transition is complete.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Rasmussen predicted that the Chicago summit will include a declaration that NATO's new ballistic missile defense capability will have achieved an initial level of capability. In spite of Russian complaints, he asserted that "NATO's decision to have a missile defense system has been taken and will be implemented." Rasmussen said that Moscow wants "guarantees" that NATO's missile defense program is not directed at Russia. Rasmussen did not see how he could provide such guarantees and implied more friction in the future over this issue.

Another major topic in Chicago will be NATO's "smart defense" initiative. "Smart defense" is another attempt by NATO leadership to improve efficiencies in defense procurement, maintenance, and training through better multinational coordination and planning. After 63 years of trying otherwise, decisions on what weapons to buy, how to maintain equipment and facilities, and how to train military forces, are still largely made at the national level. Defense budgets everywhere are political acts taken with the interests of contractors, defense industry workers, and voters in mind. For a military alliance like NATO -- composed of many relatively small countries -- uncoordinated defense spending leads to the fielding of incompatible equipment, non-economic production, and military forces that can't function together. The alliance has struggled with these problems since the 1950s and the latest "smart defense" initiative is one more attempt to make progress toward a solution.

Ivo Daalder, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, provided two examples of how "smart defense" could efficiently improve the alliance's military capability. He noted how the Dutch government opted last May to disband all of its army's tank battalions, implicitly putting trust in the German Army and others to defend Dutch territory. In exchange, the Netherlands will invest the savings in new ballistic missile defense radars for four Dutch frigates, a capability that would benefit all alliance members. Daalder noted that the Dutch government's decision was logical only in the context of its membership in a larger alliance. Similarly, 13 alliance members are pooling their money to buy five high-altitude Global Hawk strategic reconnaissance drones, a platform the U.S. Air Force used last year over Libya to locate targets for NATO strike aircraft. With this purchase, European alliance members will acquire a critical capability that only the United States currently has.

The NATO staff has drawn up a list of 170 more ideas to further the goals of smart defense. But such a list makes one wonder what specific military capabilities NATO imagines it will need in the future. Defense budgets in Europe are under even more pressure than they are in the United States. NATO and European countries should undertake an assessment of future military threats and available resources and then set defense priorities and risks accordingly, as the Obama administration attempted to do with its defense strategy guidance.

Last year found NATO involved in a manpower-intensive ground war in Afghanistan and a relatively high-tech air and naval battle over Libya. The Libyan campaign revealed critical shortcomings in European defense capabilities which had to be patched by the United States. These included a lack of strategic reconnaissance platforms, inadequate intelligence analysis, a hole in command-and-control capacity, and several countries running out of precision-guided munitions in the middle of the campaign.

Did the wars of 2011 show what NATO should prepare for? Probably not. After Afghanistan, European leaders will be even less eager for another prolonged stabilization campaign than are U.S. officials. The Libyan campaign is also likely a one-off; Rasmussen gave a firm "no" to any thought of NATO intervention in Syria, even in the very unlikely event that the United Nations Security Council approves such a venture.

So what should NATO plan for? Primarily, it should consider how Europe will defend itself against likely future threats after the United States is no longer able to support the alliance to the extent European policymakers have become accustomed to over the past six decades.

The sharp decline in U.S. military support for European security began long before the Obama administration's pivot. Over the past decade, the U.S. Navy has permanently transferred more and more of its ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a trend that will continue as the Chinese fleet continues to expand. The United States still has a two-ocean navy, but those two oceans are now the Pacific and Indian. Last week, Panetta announced that two of the four remaining U.S. Army brigade combat teams in Europe will be removed. More U.S. bases in Europe will be closed, military staffs reduced, and headquarters downgraded. With China's cost advantages in shipbuilding and manufacturing, the United States will find itself hard-pressed to keep up should Beijing elect to ramp up production of warships and combat aircraft. The result will be even fewer U.S. military capabilities available to NATO.

The shift in U.S. priorities could provide NATO, especially its European members, with the organizing principle it has been looking for since 1991. First, with the U.S. pull-back from the continent accelerating, Europe's defense ministries should cooperate to defend their sea, air, space, and cyberspace "commons." U.S. attention on the Pacific and Middle East should provide a powerful incentive to Europe to use smart defense coordination to acquire the high-end naval, air, space, and cyber capabilities needed to defend their interests in the commons over the continent and in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic.

Without a conventional ground threat to the continent, Europe should reduce and fully professionalize its ground forces. In addition to a mobile crisis response force, Europe should develop a broad special operations adviser capability. These advisors would engage in security force assistance and foreign internal defense missions with partner military and police forces in Africa and central Asia, and thus help extend Europe's security perimeter far beyond the continent's borders.

The result of these moves should be an alliance less dominated by the U.S. and instead led by a Europe motivated to become more self-reliant. That need for self-reliance should energize the defense restructuring and reform Europe has long needed. Changes on the far side of the world will make NATO more important a decade from now than it is to today. But NATO will have to endure some wrenching change if it is to stay relevant.