NATO defense budgets grow, but alliance seen as lacking strategy

NATO defense budgets grow, but alliance seen as lacking strategy

By Luke Vargas   
Courtesy: NATO
Courtesy: NATO

UNITED NATIONS – Sixteen of the 27 armies that comprise NATO increased defense spending as a share of GDP in 2016, helping the alliance notch its first increase in overall military spending since 2011, according to new data released Monday.

That jump was driven in large part by a 3.5 percent, $23 billion increase in U.S. defense spending between 2015 and 2016. Among NATO’s 25 European armies, spending was up a more modest $6.5 billion, or 2.7 percent.

While those headline numbers suggest European nations are waking up to the threat of Russia, analysts said the three militaries capable of countering Russia – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – continue to show little willingness to make meaningful military upgrades.

“The most critical powers historically have been Britain, France or Germany,” Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said. “None of them today are talking about levels of military spending or defense efforts or force improvements which would make a dramatic improvement in terms of deterrence or defense.”

NATO data released on Monday that shows all three countries reported spending less on the military as a share of GDP in 2016 than they did in 2009, and German defense spending now stands at just 1.2 percent of GDP, far below NATO’s two percent target.

Even if Germany suddenly increased spending, the country’s military is need of high levels of sustained support far above that two percent guidance.

“It would take at least three percent over a period of years to basically rebuild anything like the capabilities that Germany had before the end of the Cold War, and it’s the most critical single power to basically deterring Russia in the central region,” Cordesman said.

Courtesy: NATO
Courtesy: NATO

Monday’s data also confirmed a trend in greater defense spending across the Baltic states, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania showed signs of waking up to the perceived threats of neighboring Russia. Estonia funneled some 2.18 percent of its GDP toward defense in 2016 – the third-highest percentage of all NATO members – while Lithuania and Latvia placed ninth and tenth among the alliance.

But increased defense spending by some of Europe’s smallest states does little to improve the continent’s overall security. Estonia’s $500 million in 2016 defense spending constituted just five one-hundredths of one percent of the combined military spending by NATO members.

Those trends undercut claims by U.S. President Donald Trump that his condemnation of various NATO allies over their meager military spending had prompted a widespread change of heart across the alliance as countries undertook massive military modernization efforts.

In October, Trump claimed in a presidential debate that, “all of a sudden they’re paying, and I’ve been given a lot of credit for it.”

Evidently unimpressed with 2016 military spending, however, Trump’s Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, reportedly warned NATO members last month that, “if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense.”

“We don’t spend money to spend money. You use money to buy actually deterrent and war-fighting capabilities, and two percent is irrelevant because meeting it doesn’t provide, collectively or individually, the capabilities that NATO needs to securely deter Russia,” Cordesman said.

Courtesy: NATO
Courtesy: NATO

Beyond hitting dollar value goals, other experts worry that NATO continues to lack a clear understanding of its military needs; after all, hitting two percent targets is only useful when each country is buying equipment that’s useful for the alliance as a whole.

“For years after the end of the Cold War, during the time of the so-called ‘peace dividend,’ there was no longer a goal that NATO leaders shared,” Jeffrey Rathke, Deputy Director of the CSIS Europe Center, said.

In addition to settling on the two percent spending target several years ago, Rathke notes that NATO countries pledged to funnel 20 percent of their military spending toward equipment, a target intended to distinguish spending on soldier salaries and pensions from the procurement of modern military hardware.

Ten of NATO’s armies now meet or exceed that target, with Lithuania leading the way at close to 28 percent.

The U.S. has long been the top defense spender among its NATO peers – it accounted for 68 percent of combined expenditures last year – but that fact has rarely been the focus of media attention or political debate.

That began to change in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, events that served as a wake-up call for an alliance that had talked little about collective defense goals since the end of the Cold War.

Courtesy: NATO
Courtesy: NATO

In addition to falling short of its two percent GDP target, Germany also failed the equipment goal, funneling just 12.2 of its defense expenditures on new equipment.

Rathke said NATO countries having two spending targets in place is better than none, even if compliance remains uneven, but he warned that the entire alliance needs to wise up to current threats.

“If you look at the threat that Russia represented in the past, in the Cold War, it was usually a large army, and so we were geared up to counteract that,” he said. “Now what you see when you look at the way Russia theorizes about military conflict, it sees military conflict and the political and non-military elements all being synchronized, coordinated and harmonized so they have the greatest effect.”

“This is something that Europe is not yet ideally suited to deal with.”

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