The Russian threat to Europe hasn’t been as stark as it is now since the end of the Cold War. Yet despite the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the looming threat to the Baltic states, overall NATO spending declined last year, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced yesterday. In a speech reported by the Atlantic Council, he noted that:
This year, we expect five Allies to spend 2% of GDP on defence and these Allies are Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Eighteen Allies are expected to increase their defence expenditure in real terms.
This is good news. But the picture is mixed. Overall, we expect total NATO defence expenditure to continue to decrease in 2015 by 1.5 percent. And this comes on top of a steady decline in especially European NATO Allies defence expenditure during a long period of time.
The first two paragraphs—the good news—have stolen the headlines. And indeed some of it is very welcome: for instance, seeing the Poles, who are the largest and most visible of the wholly ex-Warsaw Pact NATO members (excluding East Germany), up their commitment in the face of the renewed threat.
But even some of this good news is less promising than it seems at first glance. The Times (of London) reports, for example, that although British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon trumpeted the UK as “comfortably over 2 per cent,” a change in the way spending is calculated was the true source of some of that ‘comfortable’ margin.
And, more importantly, the overall picture is bad, even depressing. If Russian tanks rolling into a neighbor—not to mentioned a year of barely-veiled threats and Russian aerial and naval incursions from Britain to Estonia—can’t impress upon our European allies the importance of restoring their defense capabilities, what will?(It’s not a question of “restoring” to a Cold War level—Europe has cut the equivalent of the German military budget from its collective armed forces since the financial crisis).
This is a political challenge—a question of will—rather than one of population, technology, or even economics. No one doubts the Europeans could field better militaries if they wanted to. This lack of will has debilitating effects that go beyond simply the number of troops or tanks each country fields. (American policymakers are not blameless here: this Administration spent much of its time in office preaching the advent of global peace, and our foreign policy thinkers are as a whole badly overdue for a pivot back to Europe).
As it happens, a series of NATO drills held just last week illustrated this well. NATO tested the deployment of Spearhead, its 5,000-strong rapid response brigade, against a simulated Russian hybrid warfare incursion into Eastern Europe. Once boots were on the ground, the exercises went well, but the run-up was a different story. The Financial Times reports on the logistical hurdles the deployment faced, quoting one Lieutenant to the effect that “’To take military equipment through Germany you have to apply for all kinds of travel documents. Normally you would have to do all that weeks and weeks in advance.'”
Timing is going to matter a lot in countering “hybrid warfare”, in two senses. The political leadership will have to be willing to respond in a timely matter, and NATO needs the ability to bring men into action quickly. Some of this is tricky—NATO, unlike Russia, is an alliance, so all 28 heads of government would have to be able to agree to take action rapidly. (There have been vague comments that the NATO is moving to streamline that process.) But on the operational side, it’s astonishing that logistics, paperwork, and simple planning haven’t been better thought out.
We should not lose total sight of the good news. Many allies are starting to take NATO more seriously, and the fact that this exercise was held and publicized reflects a determination to fix these problems. But there’s a long, long way to go—and an uncertain amount of time, given Vladmir Putin’s aggressive, erratic course, in which to get there. And, as has become a refrain recently, a bit more American leadership would go a long way.