Canada has announced that it may cut back on its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter purchase. With the U.S. and other NATO allies adjusting their F-35 purchase plans downward, Ottawa recognizes that the per-unit cost of the F-35 may increase. This episode underscores the precarious state in which NATO—the richest, most powerful, most enduring alliance in history—finds itself as the budget-cutters go to work slashing military spending across the alliance.
The cuts to the world’s most powerful military are illustrative: The Pentagon has proposed cuts of $487 billion over the next decade to the U.S. defence budget. There are plans to cut U.S. Marine Corps end strength from 202,000 to 182,000. The Army will be slashed from 570,000 troops to 490,000. Seven Air Force squadrons are on the chopping block. Pentagon plans also call for cuts in spending on the F-35; Predator and Reaper UAVs; UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters; F/A-18 Super Hornet jets; ground- and sea-based missile defences; and next-generation aircraft carriers and submarines. These cuts, it pays to recall, come on the heels of approximately $400 billion in cuts that the president ordered in 2010-11.
Washington is merely following the rest of NATO’s budget-cutting lead.
Canada plans to shave 7.4 percent off its defence operating budget in the coming years. Britain is cutting troop strength by 10 percent, retiring 40 percent of its main battle tanks, cutting its fleet of destroyers and frigates from 23 ships to 10, and eliminating entire squadrons of warplanes. France has sliced four percent from its defence budget. Italy is cutting defence spending by 28 percent, troop strength from 183,000 to 150,000 and F-35 purchases from 131 to 90. Germany, meanwhile, will reduce civilian and military numbers by 90,000, slash the Tornado bomber fleet from 185 to 85 and retire eight frigates. Finally, The Netherlands is cutting 12,000 military and civilian defence posts.
These cuts might make sense if peace were breaking out all around the world. But as NATO prepares for its summit in Chicago next month, we know the very opposite to be true.
NATO is still at war in Afghanistan. Iran is racing ahead with its nuclear-weapons program. North Korea is less stable and more paranoid than ever (as evidenced by its latest missile-test spasm and blustery threats towards its neighbor to the South). Terrorist networks like al-Qaida still have the ability to strike targets in North America and Europe, and are increasing their influence in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is under assault from within. The piracy plague continues to threaten international commerce. The Arab Spring revolution has triggered a civil war in Syria. Earlier this month, Syrian forces fired into Turkey, which explains why Turkey has reminded its fellow NATO allies that "NATO has responsibilities" related to "Turkey’s borders." Moreover, what happens if the revolution spreads to the oil-rich Arab monarchies? And what path will the new governments in Egypt and Libya ultimately choose?
These, it could be argued, are not even NATO’s principle worries. As NATO declaws itself, China is boosting military spending by 11 percent this year, capping double-digit increases in nine of the past 10 years. That unparalleled buildup has empowered Beijing to bully its neighbours; launch cyber attacks against the United States, Canada, and other NATO allies; conduct provocative military operations in space; and deploy huge arsenals of missiles, submarines, and warplanes to project its power and circumscribe America’s reach.
Likewise, Russia – in the midst of a planned 65-percent increase in military spending – is making claims in the Arctic, occupying parts of Georgia, blocking international action in Iran, delaying action in Syria, buzzing North American airspace, and carrying out provocative maneuvers and weapons deployments in areas bordering NATO states.
Not surprisingly, Norwegian Minister of Defense Espen Barth Eide worries about NATO’s ability "to deliver if something happens in the transatlantic theatre of a more classical type of aggression."
Last summer, Robert Gates, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, noted that total European defence spending fell by 15 percent in the decade after 9/11 – meaning Europe’s deficit of will predates the Great Recession. In fact, the United States now accounts for 75 percent of NATO’s defence spending, exceeding the U.S. share of 50 percent during the Cold War. And just five NATO members – the United States, Britain, France, Greece, and Albania – meet the alliance’s standard of investing two percent of GDP on defence.
Alliance-wide cuts in defence spending promise to exacerbate the situation; of course, the consequences of cutting into NATO’s military muscle are already on display.
In Afghanistan, for instance, most NATO members have to hitch a ride with the U.S. air force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy; the United States is contributing 71 percent of all forces to the NATO mission; and non-NATO members Australia, Georgia, and Sweden have more troops deployed than several founding members of the alliance.
In Libya, without the United States in the lead, NATO was found woefully lacking in munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, drones, and command-and-control assets – nearly everything needed to conduct a 21st-century air war. After Libya, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on NATO to “aim at narrowing the economic and technological gap between the United States and Europe.” That seems unlikely given the retrenchment now underway throughout NATO. Equally unlikely is NATO engaging in a Libya-style policing mission anytime soon, let alone another Afghanistan-style nation-building campaign.
The United States has always been the centre of gravity within NATO, shouldering a heavier burden than its allies. But even if the flesh of NATO’s European members has been weak at times, the spirit was usually willing. Today, the flesh and muscle are being chopped away, and the spirit seems increasingly unwilling.
That’s worrisome news, because even with their military limitations and modest military budgets, key NATO allies have played important niche roles in the post-Cold War era. These alliances within the alliance have helped liberate Kuwait, defend Saudi Arabia, stabilize the Balkans, topple the Taliban government of Afghanistan, take down Saddam’s regime, fight piracy, train Iraqi troops, and protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi’s henchmen.
Some argue that this “mission creep” is evidence that NATO has outlived its raison d'être. Given the importance of these missions, the opposite seems more accurate: By evolving, NATO has served the wider interests of the international community as well as the "out of area" interests of its members. Some observers, myself included, saw in NATO’s post-Cold War missions the outlines of a "global NATO" on call to intervene in the world’s trouble spots. But that global NATO seems a distant possibility today.
A year ago, Gates warned about NATO’s "lack of will" and "lack of resources." The United States has supplied the lion’s share of both in recent years. As Washington’s will (see Libya and Afghanistan) tapers and its resources (see the 2013 defence budget) shrink, it stands to reason that NATO’s global reach and role will follow a similar trajectory. Where that trajectory ultimately leads the Atlantic Alliance—back to focusing on deterrence or into irrelevance—remains to be seen.