- - Thursday, January 15, 2015

NATO has just announced it plans to form an interim spearhead force, a “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force”, VJTF in NATO parlance, to handle potential hostilities in Ukraine or the Middle East. Announcing the new force earlier this month, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it will enable the Alliance “to meet any threats from wherever they come.”

Perhaps so, perhaps not.

European politicians are in something of a fix, their constituents beginning to take note of the Russian bear stirring to their east, of Islamist extremists gathering strength to their south, and asking questions, about these threats, about what can be done. Their leaders need to so something, or at least appear to be doing something, and so have turned to NATO.

In September 2014, the Alliance’s twenty eight members announced a unanimous decision to build a rapid reaction force of six thousand troops, creating a capability to move quickly in dangerous times, giving themselves a year to create it, meaning the force had be rapid, but not necessarily urgent.

Last week’s announcement of an interim VJTF, numbering three to four thousand troops, from Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, is a step in the process of building this new capability, to be followed, presumably in February, by another press release, when the ministers meet to ponder what the new VJTF might look like, to be followed by more press releases throughout the year, as the VJTF evolves into a true rapid reaction force. The Alliance appears to be on the march.

Yet looks can be deceiving. Secretary General Stoltenberg says the new force is “the biggest increase in our collective defence since the end of the cold war,” certainly welcome news if true, the right step to counter Russia’s expansionist foreign policy, and ISIS’ exported terror.

Unfortunately, Europe’s leaders have been degrading NATO’s military capabilities for fourteen years, transferring more and more of their defense burdens onto the United States. As a group, the NATO European members have failed, since 2000, to meet the agreed upon minimum, military commitments to their own security, preferring instead to slash their military budgets, in some cases to the point of making them militarily irrelevant. By 2013, only Estonia, Greece, and the United Kingdom budgeted the agreed upon 2% of GDP to maintain national military capabilities, down from five nations the year before, military capabilities NATO needs to perform its missions.

The continent’s bigger countries, France 1.9%, Germany 1.3%, Italy 1.2%, Spain 0.9%, all missed the mark. Without national military capabilities from Alliance members, NATO can no longer perform its minimum military missions and its headquarters in Belgium is jammed with European ambassadors, generals and admirals, arguing over staff jobs, demanding the perquisites of protocol, insisting they be recognized and consulted, on military matters, they have little capacity to influence. One cannot help but ask of the Secretary General’s assertion: increase in collective defense from what?

In truth, the interim VJTF is more a gesture, than a commitment, born of the need to be doing something, or at least appear to be doing something, in the face of Mr. Putin’s aggression, and ISIS barbarity. The proposed force, be it VJTF or the follow on rapid reaction force, is rather small in military terms, generating the rough equivalent in combat power, of one U.S. infantry brigade.

While an infantry brigade is certainly nothing to be trifled with, it will hardly change Mr. Putin’s strategic calculus, or cause ISIS to abandon its drive to recreate the 14th century. It might be good for training troops in Eastern Europe, or creating a tripwire presence in the Baltics, triggering U.S. defense commitments under Article V of the NATO Treaty, but it doesn’t say much about Europe’s commitment to its own defense.

It is the appearance of progress, of security, done on the cheap, while European leaders continue to offload the cost of defending the continent onto the United States.

Europe will not be safe until the Europeans help make it so, by honoring their commitments to its collective defense, by spending the money to create and maintain the military capabilities that will enable NATO to do its job. Twenty-seven nations, amidst a snowstorm of press releases, trumpeting significant increases in Europe’s collective security, taking a year to raise one brigade’s worth of combat power, doesn’t reverse fourteen years of neglect, or address the current gaps in NATO capabilities.

Perhaps it is time for the U.S., now responsible for seventy-five percent of NATO’s budget, to insist the economic impact of NATO’s presence be felt most heavily in those NATO countries willing to help pay for their own defense.

Major General (Ret.) Bruce Lawlor is the Director of the Center for Technology, Security, and Public Policy at Virginia Tech. He was a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) and the former Chief of Staff of the Department of Homeland Security.

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