Saturday, 12 May 2012

Smart Defence - the latest iteration of an old NATO debate!

One of the main topics at the Chicago Summit will be Smart Defence. NATO defines this as:

a new way of thinking about generating the modern defence capabilities the Alliance needs for the coming decade and beyond. It is a renewed culture of cooperation that encourages Allies to cooperate in developing, acquiring and maintaining military capabilities to undertake the Alliance’s essential core tasks agreed in the new NATO strategic concept. That means pooling and sharing capabilities, setting priorities and coordinating efforts better.

NATO says that results of the Summit will include:
Projects in the spirit of Smart Defence will comprise a package of multinational projects to address critical capability shortfalls. They will include programmes such as as missile defence, Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) and Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance as well as projects covering areas such as pooling maritime patrol aircraft and remote-controlled robots for clearing roadside bombs. 
So far, so sensible. This is in the long tradition of attempts to get NATO to function better, and in particular to get European NATO nations to provide more assets to the Alliance. During the Cold War there was a constant call for more burdensharing, which generally meant Europe spending more on its defence. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Alliance set a target for 3% increases in defence expenditure each year - and they were never met.

As major defence programmes become ever more expensive, it is only natural that countries should seek to cooperate more. Few countries can afford to maintain a large forces on their own anymore. The problem is for NATO that European nations are tremendously wasteful in the way they spend money, but changing that gets to the heart of national sovereignty and the fact that few if any European nations are willing to go far down the route of merging defence capabilities, at least if that means giving up national freedom of action.

According to NATO's own figures, NATO Europe spent over $282 billion on defence in 2011. By any measure that is a very significant sum of money, far more than either Russia or China spend on defence. however, the reality recognised in the Smart Defence idea is that this money is mostly wasted. Expensive national programmes to produce 24 parallel military structures, none of which are able to project much power or sustain operations for very long.

If European NATO members were to merge forces and capabilities, they could significantly cut what they spend on defence and still have more material and soldiers available when they were needed. NATO has a multinational command structure which could run the whole shebang effectively. Alternatively this could all be done through the Common Defence and and Security Policy of the European Union. But it just isn't going to happen. Countries are going to continue to make national decisions about the structure of national defences and defence forces.

Until that changes, NATO's Smart Defence may have successes at the margins, but won't do much to affect the situation where most European nations get very little for their defence budgets.

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