Gates’ Call to Arms

by Gary Schmitt

At NATO’s recent Strategic Concept Seminar in Washington, the fourth and final one before the Group of Experts chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright begins to draft its recommendations for the new Strategic Concept, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates outlined his ideas for NATO’s future structures, forces, and capabilities. In his opening remarks, Gates pointed out that most of the defense planning assumptions enshrined in NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept are still valid today. The same holds true for NATO’s core functions. First, the alliance remains a military alliance focused on protecting the territorial sovereignty, political integrity, and security of its members. Second, the alliance remains committed to deterring potential enemies and, should this become necessary, fighting them collectively. Lastly, NATO continues to operate on the premise that member nations will fulfill their Article 5 collective defense commitments and obligations. While these fundamental tenets are presumed to hold true today, the new task for NATO is to recommit itself to the common defense of its members and sharpen the core missions and purposes of the alliance.

From a strategic perspective, according to the secretary, the most important institutional development has been NATO’s transition from a “static, defensive force” premised on Cold War defense planning assumptions to an expeditionary fighting force that can project military power and provide security in complex out-of-area operations. This, of course, was first evidenced by the Balkan wars in the late 1990s and now confirmed by NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan. It is now a truism that alliance security and interests are no longer solely a function of territorial sovereignty. Turmoil and upheaval in remote areas of the world can have serious effects on alliance members in Europe and North America. More concretely, Gates argued that the new concept must aim to strengthen the credibility of Article 5 and enhance NATO’s strategic deterrence through improved contingency planning, military exercises, and force postures.

Secretary Gates was not shy about stating that the alliance confronts a host of serious and systemic problems and is a long way from where it needs to be if it truly desires to retain strategic relevance in the 21st century. NATO’s current budgetary crisis is “a symptom of deeper problems with the way NATO perceives threats, formulates requirements, and prioritizes and allocates resources.” In essence, these problems are a direct consequence of having “underinvested” in collective defense capabilities since the end of the Cold War. Presently, only five of NATO’s 28 allies are meeting the alliance’s defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP. (One reason, of course, is that, at the same time, discretionary spending on social security and entitlement programs in many NATO member nations has reached historic highs.) Gates is correct when he says that NATO has reached “an inflection point.” According to the secretary, “[the] demilitarization of Europe has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.”

Gates, in particular, noted the continuing inability of the alliance to procure and field such key capabilities as cargo aircraft, heavy lift helicopters, aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms. In the short term, member nations need to free up additional funding to provide its troops on deployment in Afghanistan with the urgent operational requirements they have been pleading for. As the secretary rightly pointed out in his concluding remarks, the current state of NATO’s defense capabilities should be “a wake-up call.” What NATO needs now, and what the new Strategic Concept needs to chart the course for, are profound “operational and institutional changes.” If NATO’s new strategy fails to address these changes, to paraphrase the secretary, it won’t be worth the paper it is written on.

Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s program on advanced strategic studies. Philipp Tomio is a research assistant at AEI