Small Wars

This Week at War: What Is NATO Good For?

The U.S. pivot to Asia could give the military alliance a chance to find a new identity.

BRUSSELS — In a briefing delivered at NATO headquarters on Jan. 30, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that "NATO is the most successful alliance in history." Rasmussen and his colleagues are hoping that success lies not only in the past but in the future, too. While 2011 was NATO's busiest year ever for military operations -- with ongoing stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo and a surprise seven-month air campaign over Libya -- the alliance still struggles to define a convincing organizing principle that will be relevant in the future, a problem it has struggled with since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, NATO's leaders may now find the compelling rationale for alliance's future, and the strongest motivation for long-needed institutional reform, on the far side of the world. The emerging security rivalry between the United States and China, and the U.S. government's "pivot" away from Europe to address this challenge, may now focus the minds of European statesmen on their own security shortcomings like nothing else has since the end of the Cold War.

Before NATO's leaders can give full attention to the alliance's future missions and strategy, they must first attend to a heavy backlog of unfinished projects. In May, NATO will hold a heads-of-government summit in Chicago in an attempt to clear away up some old business and make way for contemplating the alliance's future.

Afghanistan will naturally dominate the "old business" agenda. This week, on the flight to a preparatory meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have preempted the upcoming discussion on Afghanistan when he revealed the Obama administration's intention to suspend direct combat operations by U.S. forces by mid-2013, up to 18 months earlier than previously assumed. This early switch to a purely training and advisory role for U.S. forces closely followed last week's decision by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan next year, instead of in 2014.

At the last NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, alliance leaders pledged to maintain the current military mission in Afghanistan through 2014, when they projected it would be possible to complete a transition to Afghan security forces. The Chicago summit will have to assess whether a new timeline is now required. Leaders will also have to discuss how NATO and the rest of the international community intend to support -- seemingly in perpetuity -- the large Afghan army and national police force after the transition is complete.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Rasmussen predicted that the Chicago summit will include a declaration that NATO's new ballistic missile defense capability will have achieved an initial level of capability. In spite of Russian complaints, he asserted that "NATO's decision to have a missile defense system has been taken and will be implemented." Rasmussen said that Moscow wants "guarantees" that NATO's missile defense program is not directed at Russia. Rasmussen did not see how he could provide such guarantees and implied more friction in the future over this issue.

Another major topic in Chicago will be NATO's "smart defense" initiative. "Smart defense" is another attempt by NATO leadership to improve efficiencies in defense procurement, maintenance, and training through better multinational coordination and planning. After 63 years of trying otherwise, decisions on what weapons to buy, how to maintain equipment and facilities, and how to train military forces, are still largely made at the national level. Defense budgets everywhere are political acts taken with the interests of contractors, defense industry workers, and voters in mind. For a military alliance like NATO -- composed of many relatively small countries -- uncoordinated defense spending leads to the fielding of incompatible equipment, non-economic production, and military forces that can't function together. The alliance has struggled with these problems since the 1950s and the latest "smart defense" initiative is one more attempt to make progress toward a solution.

Ivo Daalder, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, provided two examples of how "smart defense" could efficiently improve the alliance's military capability. He noted how the Dutch government opted last May to disband all of its army's tank battalions, implicitly putting trust in the German Army and others to defend Dutch territory. In exchange, the Netherlands will invest the savings in new ballistic missile defense radars for four Dutch frigates, a capability that would benefit all alliance members. Daalder noted that the Dutch government's decision was logical only in the context of its membership in a larger alliance. Similarly, 13 alliance members are pooling their money to buy five high-altitude Global Hawk strategic reconnaissance drones, a platform the U.S. Air Force used last year over Libya to locate targets for NATO strike aircraft. With this purchase, European alliance members will acquire a critical capability that only the United States currently has.

The NATO staff has drawn up a list of 170 more ideas to further the goals of smart defense. But such a list makes one wonder what specific military capabilities NATO imagines it will need in the future. Defense budgets in Europe are under even more pressure than they are in the United States. NATO and European countries should undertake an assessment of future military threats and available resources and then set defense priorities and risks accordingly, as the Obama administration attempted to do with its defense strategy guidance.

Last year found NATO involved in a manpower-intensive ground war in Afghanistan and a relatively high-tech air and naval battle over Libya. The Libyan campaign revealed critical shortcomings in European defense capabilities which had to be patched by the United States. These included a lack of strategic reconnaissance platforms, inadequate intelligence analysis, a hole in command-and-control capacity, and several countries running out of precision-guided munitions in the middle of the campaign.

Did the wars of 2011 show what NATO should prepare for? Probably not. After Afghanistan, European leaders will be even less eager for another prolonged stabilization campaign than are U.S. officials. The Libyan campaign is also likely a one-off; Rasmussen gave a firm "no" to any thought of NATO intervention in Syria, even in the very unlikely event that the United Nations Security Council approves such a venture.

So what should NATO plan for? Primarily, it should consider how Europe will defend itself against likely future threats after the United States is no longer able to support the alliance to the extent European policymakers have become accustomed to over the past six decades.

The sharp decline in U.S. military support for European security began long before the Obama administration's pivot. Over the past decade, the U.S. Navy has permanently transferred more and more of its ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a trend that will continue as the Chinese fleet continues to expand. The United States still has a two-ocean navy, but those two oceans are now the Pacific and Indian. Last week, Panetta announced that two of the four remaining U.S. Army brigade combat teams in Europe will be removed. More U.S. bases in Europe will be closed, military staffs reduced, and headquarters downgraded. With China's cost advantages in shipbuilding and manufacturing, the United States will find itself hard-pressed to keep up should Beijing elect to ramp up production of warships and combat aircraft. The result will be even fewer U.S. military capabilities available to NATO.

The shift in U.S. priorities could provide NATO, especially its European members, with the organizing principle it has been looking for since 1991. First, with the U.S. pull-back from the continent accelerating, Europe's defense ministries should cooperate to defend their sea, air, space, and cyberspace "commons." U.S. attention on the Pacific and Middle East should provide a powerful incentive to Europe to use smart defense coordination to acquire the high-end naval, air, space, and cyber capabilities needed to defend their interests in the commons over the continent and in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic.

Without a conventional ground threat to the continent, Europe should reduce and fully professionalize its ground forces. In addition to a mobile crisis response force, Europe should develop a broad special operations adviser capability. These advisors would engage in security force assistance and foreign internal defense missions with partner military and police forces in Africa and central Asia, and thus help extend Europe's security perimeter far beyond the continent's borders.

The result of these moves should be an alliance less dominated by the U.S. and instead led by a Europe motivated to become more self-reliant. That need for self-reliance should energize the defense restructuring and reform Europe has long needed. Changes on the far side of the world will make NATO more important a decade from now than it is to today. But NATO will have to endure some wrenching change if it is to stay relevant.

Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Winners and Losers of the Defense Budget

Who benefits from the Pentagon's Rumsfeldian shift toward technology and special ops?

Is Donald Rumsfeld still at work at the Pentagon? The twice-former defense secretary came to the Pentagon in early 2001 with a plan to shift expenses away from manpower and toward technology, but 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan pulled him away from that course and eventually pushed him out of the building. But judging from the news out of Washington this week, Rumsfeld's high-tech, lean headcount vision for the U.S. military has finally prevailed. The Pentagon's new way forward could hardly be more Rumsfeldian.

On Jan. 26, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined the Pentagon's next five-year budget plan, beginning in fiscal year 2013. Budget Day at the Pentagon always gets the attention of defense contractors and congressmen concerned about maintaining the flow of federal dollars to their districts. But things were a little more dramatic this year. Panetta was required to chop $259 billion over the next five years, enroute to a $487 billion cut over the next decade.

Panetta and his lieutenants used the strategic defense guidance released earlier this month to steer the new budget. That guidance calls for the Pentagon to focus on the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions and prepare for high-technology threats rather than the extended counterinsurgency operations that had been the focus over the past decade. Those who expected a shift in funding from ground forces to naval, air, and space capabilities were not surprised by Panetta's briefing. Like an aging Rust Belt industrial corporation, Pentagon budget planners realize that they need to save money on headcount, cull unneeded capacity, and reinvest in where the future will be.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that listing today's winners and losers was the "least productive" way of analyzing the budget. He and Panetta asserted that the reshaped U.S. military will be a much better match for the strategic situation the U.S. will face in 2020. Contrary to Dempsey's view, discussing the budget's winner and losers is the best way to understand the 21st century Pentagon that Panetta and his team are trying to build. Here are a few:


1. Long-range bombers. After steady declines over the past two decades, the new budget puts a stop to further cuts to the Air Force's long-range bomber forces. Plus, the Air Force's next-generation bomber will receive full funding for its development and rollout, presumably by the end of the decade. The new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, with its vast spaces and relatively few bases for U.S. short-range strike planes, means that long-range bombers are now more important than ever. Panetta apparently agrees.

2. Aircraft carriers. The Navy will retain all 11 of its big flat-tops, with the new Gerald Ford-class generation of carriers presumably fully funded. The new emphasis on the Pacific and Indian Oceans are the justifications for protecting the Navy's crown jewels. Last year, there were rumors that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, based in Japan, would be scrapped rather than go through an expensive mid-life overhaul. In putting an end to that talk, Panetta has also attempted to dispel doubts about the U.S. commit to its Asian allies.

3. Attack submarines and cruise missiles. Although the construction of one Virginia-class attack submarine, scheduled beyond 2017, will be slightly delayed, the Navy's attack subs are otherwise a high priority in the new budget. And future subs will be fitted with an extra module allowing them to carry more land-attack cruise missiles. Once again, the need for long-range striking power against potential adversaries in Asia and the Middle East is good news for the Navy's submarine force, and for Northrop-Grumman, one of the sub's contractors. Navy cruise missiles played a major role in the opening phase of the Libyan campaign last year. In a potential showdown with Iran, these subs and cruise missiles would undoubtedly be back in action.

4. Special operations forces. Bin Laden raid heroes SEAL Team Six pulled off a dramatic hostage rescue this week in Somalia, putting special operations forces back in the news. (Not to mention the major attention they received in the president's State of the Union address.) With stabilization and counterinsurgency now out of favor, the White House and Panetta are counting on special operations forces to hunt terrorists and assist in suppressing threats posed by weapons of mass destruction. Less discussed, but a large part of Panetta's strategy, will be the use of special forces and other adviser teams to maintain training programs that build the military capacity of allies in Europe, Latin America, and Africa, areas that have been downgraded by the new strategy.

5. Electronic warfare, drones, and cyber operations. Panetta repeatedly emphasized the need for the U.S. military to maintain its technological superiority, to compensate for its reduced numbers and stretched geographical responsibilities. Even after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end, the Pentagon intends to keep its ability to maintain continuous drone surveillance over 65 spots on the globe, with the capability to surge that to 85 if necessary. Advanced radar and electronic jamming are high priorities. Generous new funding for cyber operations reflects the Pentagon's concerns about the vulnerability of its networks and its interest in offensive cyber capabilities in the post-Stuxnet era.


1. Ground forces. As predicted, the active duty Army will decline over the next five years from 570,000 to 490,000 troops, with the Army disbanding at least eight of its 45 active-duty brigade combat teams. The Marine Corps will also shrink from 202,000 to 182,000, losing at least one of its nine infantry regiments, some of its aircraft squadrons, and a number of support units. The Pentagon will withdraw two of its four remaining Army brigades from Europe.

2. Pay and benefits. Over the past decade, military personnel costs -- outside of the increased costs for war funding -- rose 30 percent above inflation over the same period. That would cease by 2015, Panetta warned. Over the past decade, Congress has increased military pay faster than the increase of pay in the private sector. Panetta's warning implies that future military pay will likely lag behind. Panetta also warned that military retirees will pay more for their health insurance, although still less than those in the private sector pay. Finally, Panetta will appoint a commission to redesign the military's retirement plan, but promised that everyone currently serving will see no changes.

3. Old ships and planes. Panetta recommended retiring seven of the Navy's oldest cruisers and two of its oldest amphibious ships. The Air Force will retire 27 of its oldest C-5 transport planes along with 65 of its oldest C-130s. According to the Pentagon, the ships don't have modern capabilities and the transport aircraft won't be needed after the Army's headcount reductions take place.

4. Joint Strike Fighter. Although Panetta pledged to defend the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps versions of the troubled F-35 fighter, he is also putting the brakes on the overall program. Full production of the plane will be delayed and more testing will occur first. The program seems likely to survive for now. However, we should not be surprised to see production stopped early sometime next decade, as the Air Force and Navy's long-range strike aircraft take priority in future budgets.

5. Contractors and bases. Panetta pledged to find an additional $60 billion in administrative efficiencies over the next five years, on top of the $150 billion supposedly squeezed out by his predecessor Robert Gates. This will mean further pressure on the innumerable contractors providing support services to the department, not only to the Pentagon itself, but at military bases around the world.

As for all of those bases, Panetta has proposed reconvening the dreaded (at least by congressmen) Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Senators and congressmen clings tenaciously to the military bases in their districts, since they are conduits of federal money to their constituents. A smaller military might mean a smaller need for bases. But Pentagon planners need to be careful. Once bases are converted to parks, strip malls, or college campuses, the Pentagon will never get those training areas back. And that could pinch, should planners need to reconstitute military units during a future crisis.

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