Is “Smart Defense” Smart For NATO?

By Vriddhi Sujan, Transatlantic Community Analyst

As the European economic climate worsens, and governments impose drastic austerity measures to reduce budget deficits, there are growing concerns about European and transatlantic security. Since the end of the Cold War, European NATO members’ defense spending has fallen by 20%. In a 2010 report that examined the impact of the financial crisis on European defense, one scholar attributed this to the “free rider” impulse of Europe: “…if you knew you had the world’s most powerful military obligated by treaty to ride to your rescue, where would you make cuts?”


While the largest cuts have been in Central Europe, where substantial budget deficits have taken heavy tolls on weaker economies, overall defense expenditures (excluding Denmark) fell from €209 billion in 2006 to €194 billion in 2010. Furthermore, military spending among European countries in 2009 was 1.74% of total GDP – well below the 2% requirement set by NATO, which was the amount spent in the year 2000. Three fifths of the Alliance’s defense spending is, as a result, now accounted for by the United States. While this arrangement has benefited Europe, how much longer will it be able to exploit the “free rider” card it has played thus far? More importantly, will the U.S. be willing and able to sustain this arrangement?


NATO’s Libya operation highlighted some major European shortcomings within the Alliance. It was the first European (mainly British and French)-led NATO campaign and, while it was a success, it could not have been sustained without abundant military assistance from the United States, which provided 75% of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data, in addition to 75% of the refueling planes. It is crucial for Europeans to acquire the capability to carry out future operations independently; however, with the defense cuts being implemented, this does not seem likely.


While defense has been put on the backburner in Europe due to economic constraints, the opposite has been occurring in Asia, prompting Washington to refocus its strategic interest in a “pivot” to that region. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) annual publication, The Military Balance, “Asian defense spending is likely to exceed that of Europe, in nominal terms, during 2012.” China accounts for approximately 30% of defense expenditures in Asia and has experienced unwavering growth in the past decade, with an increase in its defense budget of 11.2% in this year alone.


Washington’s “pivot” to Asia could be Europe’s strongest impetus for addressing the concerns about it within the Alliance. In an attempt to tackle the growing problem of a shrinking defense sector in Europe, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen introduced the concept of “Smart Defense,” which emphasizes the pooling and sharing of resources among NATO members, as well as specialization in specific mission areas to enhance the overall capabilities of the organization. There has been, however, a significant amount of skepticism about the implementation of such measures.


A general criticism made about Smart Defense can be summed up by a question posed by an expert at a recent panel discussion: “When was economic hardship a time for solidarity?” Each country in Europe is experiencing a blow to its economy, making room for a lack of cohesion over issues such as defense. A bigger concern among critics is how a mission would be carried out if specialization actually occurs and there is a disagreement within the Alliance about an operation. Libya highlighted the need for NATO to become less reliant on any one country; yet the specialization of national militaries would magnify this problem. This raises the question of whether Smart Defense can deliver Rasmussen’s vision of improving NATO’s military capabilities, or if conflicting political goals will ultimately hinder it.


In 2010, for example, Britain and France initiated closer defense cooperation in a wide range of areas, which was largely an attempt to save money by pooling and sharing military resources; effectively, it was Smart Defense. They managed to overcome the initial hurdle of allocating the means for the initiative, but serious obstacles remain. Even though the partnership has now been extended to other European countries, British skepticism about such collaboration seems to be increasing. Since the Labour Government left office in 2010 and the Conservative-led Coalition assumed power, Britain has expressed its disinterest in participating in multinational initiatives as it believes them to be ineffective and a waste of money and time. Britain, moreover, still contributes to certain initiatives under the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) that support its strategic interests, but the number of these has decreased significantly. There is also talk about it leaving the European Defense Agency this year.


Another potential roadblock is the recent election of President Francois Hollande, which has fueled speculation that France may shy away from its historic allies such as Britain and Germany and lean toward others. This could threaten defense cooperation with Britain, which has explicitly stated its preference to work bilaterally with only certain European countries. The fact that Britain and France have in the past cooperated compatibly and held consistent approaches does not automatically guarantee success when it comes to all policy areas. Thus, for NATO, figuring out which members are willing to deepen defense cooperation is likely to be easier said than done.


The primary threat to Smart Defense and the Alliance’s future lies in Europe’s lack of cohesion and involvement in it. But the idea behind this initiative could, despite its challenges, allow NATO to sustain itself as a transatlantic alliance. The U.S. pivot toward Asia and shrinking defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic might ultimately force Europe to take action to maintain its security. Thus, regardless of whether or not European states want to engage in Smart Defense, it may be their only viable option.

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