NATO is falling behind in defense technology. But can Congress help?
That's the question posed by a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) study .
Even as Russia and China are developing advanced weapons, "some policymakers are increasingly concerned that NATO’s technological superiority is eroding," CRS warns.
Today's NATO faces a different environment than the Cold War that spawned it, or the post–Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition to a revitalized Russian military fielding sophisticated tanks and missiles, the alliance also faces Russian hybrid warfare, cyberwarfare and the rise of potential adversaries—such as Iran.
To some extent, NATO has adapted. In 2014, European NATO members pledged to devote 2 percent of their GDP to defense, of which 20 percent would be allocated for investment in equipment and R&D. This tracks with America's Third Offset Strategy, which aims to develop asymmetric technologies and capabilities that will exploit the weaknesses of adversaries.
But illustrating the old joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, NATO's technological edge rests on an organization that encompasses twenty-nine nations, each with its own military structure and domestic politics. In addition, there is Europe's post–World War II inclination to avoid conflict and rely on soft power rather than firepower—none of which is conducive to developing the latest and greatest in armaments.
"For some European governments, relatively small increases in defense spending require a convincing political narrative," CRS notes. "Even then, the resources devoted to defense are often allocated toward more pressing short-term priorities such as readiness and current operations."
CRS is not optimistic about NATO maintaining its technological edge. "Relatively limited budgets combined with NATO’s bureaucratic processes and a risk-averse culture are likely to continue to present challenges for NATO in its efforts to build relationships with large technology companies or other sources of innovation."
In turn, this raises the prospect of the U.S. military being technologically too far ahead of its allies. Or as CRS warns:
a technology gap could present challenges to the interoperability of NATO forces, especially if the future battlefield demands faster decision making, more rapid troop movements, or an immediate response to a crisis situation in close proximity to or even inside NATO territory.
Rather than offer recommendations to Congress, the report offered several questions for legislators to consider, including:
- Should Congress formally encourage European participation in U.S. defense innovation? Should such participation be mandated into U.S. Department of Defense research?
- Should Congress encourage technology imports from Europe? Should U.S. export controls be relaxed to encourage joint research?
- What should be America's stance if higher European defense spending creates opportunities for European companies at the expense of U.S. firms?
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