Playing smart at defense

For the longest of time, NATO has represented the collective interests of the North Atlantic nations in matters of defense. At the beginning its adversaries constituted the Soviet Union and those nations which endorsed the Warsaw Pact. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, NATO decided to evolve into a security organization which safeguarded its members from external threats by carrying operations in  distant lands. Soon it began to represent a mindset whereby the wellbeing of the members was linked to the stability of other countries worldwide.

In the past few years, NATO has come to the front line in conflicts zones like Afghanistan and Libya. However, the European debt crisis, US budget cuts in defense, lack of any persisting missions and growing unpopularity about foreign wars has started raising questions about the future of NATO. And once again this security alliance is seen to be evolving into a more mature association. This time it plans to do so under the concept of “Smart Defense”.

The Smart defense initiative was introduced only 2 years ago and is meant to channelize resources and capabilities of the member nations in an economical manner to produce an optimal effect.  This goal would be realized through greater specialization and cooperation amongst member- states and through the prioritization of their objectives.

There are some successful examples of cooperation which prove that this kind of restructuring can be realistic. The combined air attacks by several NATO members during the Libyan intervention last year was effective in defeating Gaddafi’s regime. Under the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution, 14 members have combined resources to charter 6 Antonov An-124-100 transport aircraft. Similarly, 13 members have together acquired Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with advanced surveillance radars.

Perhaps the greatest driving force behind this initiative is the austerity of resources. Maintaining the same standard of service, if not better, with limited resources is a challenge for NATO. With widespread reductions in defense spending, cooperation under smart defense would give every member an opportunity to prevent their national security from weakening.

At the moment, United States is covering for approximately 75% of NATO’s expenses and many members are not maintaining their mutually agreed 2% allocation of their GDP for defense. This lopsided financial burden can return to equilibrium so that each member quite literally has an equal say in the matters concerning the alliance.  It would also provide nations with a platform to improve their diplomatic relations with other nations without having to approach any one nation individually.

Although NATO bases its significance upon the mutual interests of its members, the latter do have their distinct interests which may clash with other nations’ interests. Defining these interests and more importantly, prioritizing them amongst the allies will be a challenge. Furthermore, there is a possibility that the priorities of the allies clash with those of the alliance itself. Most people believe these priorities should include matters like crisis management, missile defense and cyber threats. On the other hand, critics claim some of the suggestions like air policing, joint headquarters and ground surveillance have been in use for a long time.

Another issue with Smart Defense is of the division and allocation of capabilities amongst members. Each member is meant to specialize in a certain capability. Shrinking defense budgets often result in nations choosing one capability over the other resulting in specialization by default. Smart defense however, wishes to inculcate specialization by design whereby nations specialize according to their indigenous strengths to ensure an optimal diversity of capabilities for the alliance. Attaining consensus over the division of capabilities and the promise of defense spending can be a bumpy road. European countries which are already burdened with the debt crisis, will not be too happy to see more defense spending expected from them under the equitable nature of Smart Defense. As a result, nations with reasonable defense budgets may end up shouldering the cost of “free riders”.

Assigning specializations will not be the end of the troubles for the Smart Defense initiative. A well defined enforcement procedure will be required. Members must agree on when and how to use armed forces and carry out intelligence operations before as well as during an attack. Pooling and sharing resources will be difficult to manage especially during combat conditions. Even though specialization will result in interdependence, it can also stir up trouble if member nations refuse others access to their resources.

Recent NATO missions substantiate this fear. In the case of the Libyan civil war, Germany, Poland and Netherlands refused to intervene which greatly affected the overall operation. Similarly, France is insisting on withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. Such examples provide proof the existing fissures in alliance solidarity which make the concept of Smart Defense appear nothing more than an illusion. For this concept to become a reality, every member must trust the other to provide its resources to each other. This obligation can be strengthened if NATO decides to offer significant incentives to the allies.  It may, for example, choose to relax members’ financial commitment to ensure the availability of resources.

To implement the enforcement procedure, adequate supervision will also be needed. This is a tricky area because unlike alliances like the EU, NATO has no say over the resources of member-states which retain full sovereignty. For this reason, the exact role of NATO will have to be re-defined under the Smart Defense initiative. Analysts feel that this initiative will be both top-down and bottom-up in nature, though probably more inclined towards the former as capital will be an essential factor for the success of this initiative. How ambitious and intrusive should NATO be in managing multiple security projects under this initiative is a question which needs some serious consideration.

The smart defense initiative is indeed a clever way to tackle many of the constraints western nations are facing regarding security. But it is also laced with its own problems too. Difficulties in consensus and coordination can ruin the chances of a successful launch to Smart Defense. If pooling and sharing resources during peaceful conditions is already a handful then perhaps Smart Defense should be limited to just that. Unfortunately, doing so would simply be a fresh coat of paint over rusty ideas. There are alternative ways to improve the efficiency of NATO operations; individual members can start reviewing redundancies and errors in their own backyard. Smart defense requires a new mindset and a commitment which uninspired  leaders from various nations burdened with their own more pressing problems will not be able to muster.

(Spearhead analyses are a collaborative effort and not attributable to a single individual).

Spearhead Analysis – 25.05.12

By Nida Afaque
Research Analyst
Spearhead Research