Saving NATO

Unequal burden sharing and geostrategic changes threaten the alliance, but the concept of "smart defense" offers new hope.

As the United States engages in a “strategic pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region—and as defense budgets tighten on both sides of the Atlantic—the debate on burden sharing within NATO has once again been rekindled. Last summer, outgoing secretary of defense Robert Gates, a staunch Atlanticist, chided European allies publicly over the issue, warning of “dire” consequences should member states continue to fail to meet defense-spending targets of 2 percent of GDP.

Last year, only three of NATO’s twenty-eight members—the United States, Britain and Greece—met that agreed-upon target. As Europe faces daunting fiscal, monetary and growth prospects, it does not appear likely that three member states prodding the other twenty-five until they increase defense spending will be productive. Defense budgets are being slashed, and aid and diplomacy are not faring much better. Rather than seeking to meet targets established in better times, the alliance is better served by making defense spending go farther.

Secretary General Rassmussen’s concept of “smart defense” and the European Union’s drive toward “pooling and sharing” are laudable steps in this pragmatic direction. But how can we ensure that these initiatives are not just clever titles papering over a hollowed-out alliance? Implementing smart defense is one of NATO’s greatest challenges leading up to this year’s summit in Chicago.

Smart defense requires prioritization and cooperation, and investing in capacity and interoperability among NATO’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) will have outsized returns. U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder echoed Zbigniew Brzezinski’s insights when he told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that NATO is “increasingly seen as the hub of a global network of security.” There is no more efficient way to put Daalder and Brzezinski’s ideas into action in a time of austerity than by leveraging existing SOF capabilities within NATO.

Cooperation in Afghanistan has allowed allied SOF to gain valuable experience operating together, and NATO Special Operations Headquarters is an optimal platform for alliance members to continue cooperating in a cost-effective manner. This cooperation should be intensified and institutionalized. While conventional forces of member states often remain at home in the absence of major conflict, SOF are constantly deployed worldwide, generally in support of indigenous regional partners. While “out-of-area” major combat operations may be less likely going forward, SOF will continue to operate globally, and doing so in partnership through a NATO headquarters will help NATO maintain the gains in interoperability acquired over the last decade.

SOF are also particularly skilled and experienced in integrating force enablers, another aspect of Smart Defense. The idea of two or more NATO-member SOF elements training together—for example on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles or operating in concert alongside local partners outside the territory of NATO member states—epitomizes the ideas behind smart defense.

SOF is also an extremely cost-effective force multiplier that can help ensure NATO’s ability to shape and influence the strategic environment in an age of austerity. Indicative of this cost effectiveness, the 2013 U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) budget request is 1.7 percent of the overall proposed U.S. Department of Defense budget. Even accounting for the cost of the enablers SOF is so adept at leveraging, SOCOM represents less than 4 percent of DoD’s total 2013 budget. Focusing NATO nations’ resources on SOF would generate a valuable increase in capabilities that would be affordable even within austere budgets.

NATO has experienced tough times before, and this is far from the first time in the alliance’s history that there have been challenges in the realm of burden sharing. The 2012 version of the renegotiation of the transatlantic bargain at the Chicago Summit holds the possibility of making a virtue of necessity by increasing efficiency and return on defense investments. SOF is a proven winner in this regard, and increasing SOF capacity and interoperability within NATO is likely to generate significant results. In so doing, NATO SOF cooperation will epitomize the notion of smart defense and be on the leading edge of implementing this indispensable initiative.

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