Economic austerity has hit the armed forces of the U.S. and Europe, and military leaders are trying to make the best of tight budgets.
Unfortunately a misleading narrative has crept into their explanations: The claim that more, somehow, can be done with less. It may be intended to soften the blow of the largest drawdown of defense spending since the end of the Cold War, but the effect will be to hide risks and dangers.
The poster boy of this narrative is NATO’s Smart Defense Initiative highlighted at its summit last week in Chicago. The approach is to pool and share military resources through a series of multinational projects. The idea, as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says, is to “enable allies to do more together than each can afford to do on their own.”
A laudable idea on its face. And it has some good plans. It makes sense, for example, to more efficiently use resources to improve access to munitions, use of ground and air surveillance, and airlift capability. There are 20 approved projects in NATO’s Smart Defense Initiative, and they are certainly well intended.
But any time the word “smart” is formally attached to a government initiative, my skeptical antennae go up. The self-flattering adjective often masks a far less attractive fact.
And here’s the most salient fact: Europe is slashing its defense capabilities from an already very low level. For some time now NATO’s European members have spent on average only 1.6 percent of their GDP on defense, below the NATO-required amount of 2 percent (America is spending about 4.6 percent). Recent defense budget reductions in Europe exceed 10 percent.
Last year, Germany announced that it will cut its army from 250,000 to 185,000 personnel. The British have reduced the number of main battle tanks by 40 percent and heavy artillery by 35 percent. Italy’s armed forces will drop from 183,000 to 150,000 and will purchase only 90 new Joint Strike Fighters instead of 131.
The Smart Defense Initiative may be intended to make the best of a bad situation, but we should remember a few things. First, these planned projects are just that — plans or pledges. As we’ve seen when most Europeans pledged and then failed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, promises may not be kept.
Second, this initiative actually “nationalizes” certain kinds of military capability in the name of collectivizing them in pools. For example, to reduce “duplication,” the Czechs may be given the main task of developing programs to counter nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Others presumably would not have to do this.
But there is a hitch in this approach. As the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey argues, a “shared” capability which belongs largely to a single NATO member may not be shared when it is needed. Mr. Coffey points to when Germany, Belgium and France vetoed Turkey’s request for NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes in the run-up to the Iraq War. NATO eventually got around the objection, but only through a parliamentary maneuver that allowed France not to be involved directly in the decision.
What if, for whatever reason, the Czechs don’t want to let a particular country use their counter-NBC capability? This is hardly a theoretical problem. NATO is increasingly buffeted by divisions over military operations. For example, Germany refused to allow its crews to operate NATO AWACS planes over Libya because it opposed the intervention.
There is another problem: Much of the Smart Defense Initiative being billed as new is not new at all. As Mr. Coffey argues, NATO’s plan to improve allied ground intelligence gathering and surveillance has been 20 years in the making. And the new focus on the Baltic Air Policing capability, first started in 2004, is built on a system in place since the 1970s.
So beware of “smart” claims that less is more. Less usually is what it is — less.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.