The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in transition. In response to key challenges, NATO (also known as “the Alliance”) is seeking to strengthen internal cooperation, expand partnerships with other countries and implement a new strategic concept, all in the context of fiscal uncertainty.
From 20 to 21 May 2012, more than 60 heads of state and government will tackle these issues and others at the 25th NATO Summit in Chicago.
As governments confront the international economic crisis and resulting increases in national debt, they are searching for opportunities to curb spending and reduce deficits. The crisis has hit some of NATO’s 28 member-states harder than others.
The governments of many of these states are reducing their defence spending as a result. Also, maintaining military capabilities in the face of rapid technological advancements is an increasingly expensive proposition, putting additional pressures on defence budgets.
Lessons from Libya
The recent NATO operation in Libya, though deemed a success, attests to the many challenges facing the Alliance. Most significantly, the operation underlines that the international security environment is unpredictable and can quickly spawn threats requiring a NATO response.
While NATO responded quickly and effectively, the mission is a reminder that member states can consent to the launch of a NATO operation, but opt out of actually participating.
In addition, the Libya operation confirmed the Alliance’s over-dependence on United States military assets and technology, particularly with respect to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. These were critical factors in the planning and execution of the operation.
Finally, NATO dependence on American air-to-air refuelling and precision guided munitions stocks made clear the pressing need for at least some other NATO members to have these capabilities as well.
Responding to these challenges, the Alliance is considering a concept called Smart Defence. The idea is not to spend more but, rather, to spend to greater effect. The concept has been adopted in principle and embodied in a number of developing capability areas, including NATO’s ballistic missile defence program.
In practice, however, it remains to be seen whether member states will implement Smart Defence initiatives in the face of competing national interests. Smart Defence requires member states to align their national capabilities according to NATO priorities in order to avoid duplication and uncoordinated cuts while maximizing NATO’s overall effectiveness.
This requires member states to develop specialized capabilities in close coordination with other members and to seek multinational solutions for procurement, logistics and training.
Partnerships are also becoming more important to the Alliance, as they help to add capacity and legitimacy to its missions. Partnerships are particularly vital at a time when national defence budgets are declining.
A feature of recent and ongoing NATO operations like those in Libya and Afghanistan has been cooperation with non-Alliance states such as Mongolia, Australia, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the Republic of Korea. New mechanisms are being developed to maintain trust and operational interoperability among Alliance and non-Alliance partners beyond the drawdown of these missions.
Another important Alliance partner is the European Union (EU). Commenting in March 2012 on the need to enhance Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy, the EU Foreign Affairs Council (82 kB, 2 pages) appeared to embrace its own version of Smart Defence. It stated: “European cooperation on pooling and sharing of military capabilities represents a common response to European capability shortfalls, aiming at enhancing operational effectiveness in a context of financial austerity and a changing strategic environment.”
Through the European Defence Agency, cooperative initiatives have already begun on air-to-air refuelling, medical support, training and maritime surveillance.
The Council also endorsed enhanced cooperation with NATO. It acknowledged that productive contacts among staffs from both organizations have already begun. However, the Turkey–Cyprus issue remains an irritant in NATO–EU relations and continues to hinder cooperation.
The way forward
As NATO moves forward on goals outlined in its new Strategic Concept (413 kB, 40 pages) (2010), certain realities are being taken into account. It is understood that current economic difficulties leave national governments with little choice but to reduce their defence budgets.
Also, the Alliance is seeking to address its current over-dependence on American military assets, particularly as the U.S. undertakes its own defence cuts and shifts its security and defence priorities towards the Asia–Pacific region.
Given these realities, NATO is streamlining its operational commands. Its Secretary General – one of the prime architects of Smart Defence – is urging early and concrete steps towards the implementation of both the new Strategic Concept and Smart Defence. It is against this background that political agreements on cooperative projects and other long-term Smart Defence initiatives will be discussed at the Chicago Summit.