Gates: NATO Has Become Two-tiered Alliance

BRUSSELS, June 10, 2011 — NATO has turned into a two-tiered alliance of mem­bers who con­sume secu­ri­ty and those who pro­duce it, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates spoke to NATO’s Secu­ri­ty and Defense Agen­da assem­bly the day after a meet­ing of the alliance’s defense min­is­ters con­clud­ed.

“In the past, I’ve wor­ried open­ly about NATO turn­ing into a two-tiered alliance between mem­bers who spe­cial­ize in ’soft’ human­i­tar­i­an, devel­op­ment, peace­keep­ing and talk­ing tasks and those con­duct­ing the ‘hard’ com­bat mis­sions — between those will­ing and able to pay the price and bear the bur­dens of alliance com­mit­ments, and those who enjoy the ben­e­fits of NATO mem­ber­ship, be they secu­ri­ty guar­an­tees or head­quar­ters bil­lets, but don’t want to share the risks and the costs,” the sec­re­tary said. 

“This is no longer a hypo­thet­i­cal wor­ry,” he added. “We are there today. And it is unacceptable.” 

To be sure, Gates said, NATO is heav­i­ly involved in Afghanistan, and the troops assigned to the NATO-led Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force are acquit­ting them­selves well. 

“Con­sid­er that when I became sec­re­tary of defense, there were about 20,000 non‑U.S. troops from NATO nations in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “Today, that fig­ure is approx­i­mate­ly 40,000. More than 850 troops from non‑U.S. NATO mem­bers have made the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice in Afghanistan. For many allied nations, these were the first mil­i­tary casu­al­ties they have tak­en since the Sec­ond World War.” 

NATO took over ISAF four years ago, Gates not­ed, adding that he nev­er would have expect­ed the alliance to sus­tain this oper­a­tion for this long, much less add sig­nif­i­cant­ly more forces in 2010. 

“It is a cred­it to the brave ISAF troops on the ground, as well as to the allied gov­ern­ments who have made the case for the Afghanistan mis­sion under dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances at home,” the sec­re­tary said. 

The coali­tion forces in Afghanistan now include 100,000 Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers who pro­vide need­ed resources for a war that had been chron­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed due to oper­a­tions in Iraq, Gates said. “These new resources – com­bined with a new strat­e­gy – have deci­sive­ly changed the mil­i­tary momen­tum on the ground, with the Tal­iban eject­ed from their for­mer strong­holds,” he added. 

But noth­ing remains sta­t­ic, he told the assem­bly, and as part of the plan to turn secu­ri­ty con­trol over to the Afghan gov­ern­ment by the end of 2014, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma soon will announce the size and pac­ing of the U.S. troop draw­down begin­ning in July. No mat­ter what it is, Gates said, there will be no rush to the exits. 

“The vast major­i­ty of the surge forces that arrived over the past two years will remain through the sum­mer fight­ing sea­son,” he said. “We will also reas­sign many troops from areas trans­ferred to Afghan con­trol into less-secure provinces and districts.” 

The Tal­iban will attempt to coun­ter­at­tack, he said, but they will lose. And keep­ing the pres­sure on them will cre­ate a chance to bol­ster mil­i­tary suc­cess with gov­ern­men­tal and eco­nom­ic suc­cess, he added. 

“Giv­en what I have heard and seen – not just in my recent vis­it to Afghanistan, but over the past two years – I believe these gains can take root and be sus­tained over time with prop­er allied sup­port,” the sec­re­tary said. “Far too much has been accom­plished, at far too great a cost, to let the momen­tum slip away just as the ene­my is on his back foot.” 

NATO can­not afford some troop-con­tribut­ing nations to pull out their forces on their own time­line in a way that under­mines the mis­sion and increas­es risks to oth­er allies, Gates said. 

“The way ahead in Afghanistan is ‘in togeth­er, out togeth­er,’ ” he said. “Then our troops can come home to the hon­or and appre­ci­a­tion they so rich­ly deserve, and the transat­lantic alliance will have passed its first major test of the 21st century.” 

But NATO oper­a­tions in Afghanistan have exposed seri­ous alliance short­com­ings in mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties and in polit­i­cal will, Gates said. “Despite more than 2 mil­lion troops in uni­form – not count­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary – NATO has strug­gled, at times des­per­ate­ly, to sus­tain a deploy­ment of 25,000 to 45,000 troops — not just in boots on the ground, but in cru­cial sup­port assets such as heli­copters; trans­port air­craft; main­te­nance; intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance; and much more,” he said. 

The NATO oper­a­tion over Libya shows an even greater lack of resources and will, Gates said. Oper­a­tion Uni­fied Pro­tec­tor, he not­ed, is a sea-air cam­paign essen­tial­ly in Europe’s back­yard. The mis­sion has wide­spread polit­i­cal sup­port, does­n’t require ground troops under fire and is vital to Europe’s nation­al inter­ests, he added. 

The mis­sion set out by the Unit­ed Nations has suc­ceed­ed, Gates said, ground­ing Moam­mar Gadhafi’s air force and degrad­ing his regime’s abil­i­ty to kill his own people. 

“While the oper­a­tion has exposed some short­com­ings caused by under­fund­ing,” the sec­re­tary said, “it has also showed the poten­tial of NATO, with an oper­a­tion where Euro­peans are tak­ing the lead with Amer­i­can support. 

“How­ev­er, while every alliance mem­ber vot­ed for the Libya mis­sion, less than half have par­tic­i­pat­ed, and few­er than a third have been will­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the strike mis­sion,” he con­tin­ued. “Frankly, many of those allies sit­ting on the side­lines do so not because they do not want to par­tic­i­pate, but sim­ply because they can’t. The mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties sim­ply aren’t there.” 

Allies do not have intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and recon­nais­sance assets that would allow more allies to be involved and make an impact, Gates said. To run the air cam­paign, the NATO air oper­a­tions cen­ter in Italy required a major aug­men­ta­tion of tar­get­ing spe­cial­ists, main­ly from the Unit­ed States, to do the job – a “just in time” infu­sion of per­son­nel that may not always be avail­able in future con­tin­gen­cies, the sec­re­tary said. 

“We have the spec­ta­cle of an air oper­a­tions cen­ter designed to han­dle more than 300 sor­ties a day strug­gling to launch about 150,” he said. “Fur­ther­more, the might­i­est mil­i­tary alliance in his­to­ry is only 11 weeks into an oper­a­tion against a poor­ly armed regime in a sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed coun­try – yet many allies are begin­ning to run short of muni­tions, requir­ing the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” 

Part of this predica­ment stems from a lack of will, much of it from a lack of resources in an era of aus­ter­i­ty, Gates said. For all but a hand­ful of allies, defense bud­gets – in absolute terms, as a share of eco­nom­ic out­put – have been chron­i­cal­ly starved for ade­quate fund­ing for a long time, with the short­falls com­pound­ing on them­selves each year, he added. 

Despite the demands of mis­sion in Afghanistan — NATO’s first “hot” ground war — total Euro­pean defense spend­ing has declined by near­ly 15 per­cent over the last 10 years, the sec­re­tary said. Fur­ther­more, he added, ris­ing per­son­nel costs, com­bined with the demands of train­ing and equip­ping for Afghan deploy­ments, has con­sumed an ever-grow­ing share of already mea­ger defense budgets. 

This means mod­ern­iza­tion and improv­ing capa­bil­i­ties are being squeezed out, as the world sees today over Libya, he said. 

“I am the lat­est in a string of U.S. defense sec­re­taries who have urged allies pri­vate­ly and pub­licly, often with exas­per­a­tion, to meet agreed-upon NATO bench­marks for defense spend­ing,” Gates said. “How­ev­er, fis­cal, polit­i­cal and demo­graph­ic real­i­ties make this unlike­ly to hap­pen any time soon, as even mil­i­tary stal­warts like the [Unit­ed King­dom] have been forced to ratch­et back with major cuts to force structure.” 

Today, just five of the 28 NATO allies – the Unit­ed States, the Unit­ed King­dom, France, Greece and Alba­nia – exceed the agreed-upon 2 per­cent of gross domes­tic prod­uct spend­ing on defense. And that prob­a­bly won’t change, Gates said. 

“The rel­e­vant chal­lenge for us today, there­fore, is no longer the total lev­el of defense spend­ing by allies, but how these lim­it­ed – and dwin­dling – resources are allo­cat­ed, and for what pri­or­i­ties,” he said. “For exam­ple, though some small­er NATO mem­bers have mod­est­ly sized and fund­ed mil­i­taries that do not meet the 2 per­cent thresh­old, sev­er­al of these allies have man­aged to punch well above their weight because of the way they use the resources they have.” 

For exam­ple, he said, Nor­way and Den­mark have pro­vid­ed 12 per­cent of allied strike air­craft in the Libya oper­a­tion, yet have struck about one-third of the tar­gets, and Bel­gium and Cana­da also are mak­ing major con­tri­bu­tions to the strike mission. 

“These coun­tries have, with their con­strained resources, found ways to do the train­ing, buy the equip­ment and field the plat­forms nec­es­sary to make a cred­i­ble mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tion,” Gates said. 

But they are the excep­tions, he added, as too many allies have been unwill­ing to fun­da­men­tal­ly change how they set pri­or­i­ties and allo­cate resources. 

“The non‑U.S. NATO mem­bers col­lec­tive­ly spend more than 300 bil­lion U.S. dol­lars on defense annu­al­ly, which, if allo­cat­ed wise­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly, could buy a sig­nif­i­cant amount of usable mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty,” Gates said. “Instead, the results are sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than the sum of the parts.” 

This, he added, not only has short­changed cur­rent oper­a­tions, but also bodes ill for ensur­ing NATO has the key com­mon alliance capa­bil­i­ties of the future. Mem­ber states, he added, must look at new ways to boost com­bat capabilities. 

“While it is clear NATO mem­bers should do more to pool mil­i­tary assets, such ‘Smart Defense’ ini­tia­tives are not a panacea,” he said. “In the final analy­sis, there is no sub­sti­tute for nations pro­vid­ing the resources nec­es­sary to have the mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty the alliance needs when faced with a secu­ri­ty chal­lenge. Ulti­mate­ly, nations must be respon­si­ble for their fair share of the com­mon defense.” 

All this must be seen in the con­text of the polit­i­cal world in which NATO oper­ates, Gates said. 

“As you all know, America’s seri­ous fis­cal sit­u­a­tion is now putting pres­sure on our defense bud­get, and we are in a process of assess­ing where the U.S. can or can­not accept more risk as a result of reduc­ing the size of our mil­i­tary,” the sec­re­tary said. “Tough choic­es lie ahead affect­ing every part of our gov­ern­ment, and dur­ing such times, scruti­ny inevitably falls on the cost of over­seas com­mit­ments – from for­eign assis­tance to mil­i­tary bas­ing, sup­port and guarantees.” 

Gates said he and Oba­ma believe it would be a grave mis­take for the Unit­ed States to with­draw from its glob­al respon­si­bil­i­ties, not­ing that he dis­cussed expand­ing U.S. engage­ments in Asia last week at a region­al secu­ri­ty con­fer­ence in Singapore. 

“With respect to Europe, for the bet­ter part of six decades there has been rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle doubt or debate in the Unit­ed States about the val­ue and neces­si­ty of the transat­lantic alliance,” Gates said. “The ben­e­fits of a Europe [that is] whole, pros­per­ous and free after being twice dev­as­tat­ed by wars requir­ing Amer­i­can inter­ven­tion was self-evident.” 

For most of the Cold War, U.S. gov­ern­ments of both par­ties jus­ti­fied defense invest­ments and cost­ly for­ward bases that made up rough­ly 50 per­cent of all NATO mil­i­tary spend­ing, the sec­re­tary said. “But some two decades after the col­lapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spend­ing has risen to more than 75 per­cent – at a time when polit­i­cal­ly painful bud­get and ben­e­fit cuts are being con­sid­ered at home,” he said. 

“The blunt real­i­ty,” he con­tin­ued, “is that there will be dwin­dling appetite and patience in the U.S. Con­gress – and in the Amer­i­can body politic writ large – to expend increas­ing­ly pre­cious funds on behalf of nations that are appar­ent­ly unwill­ing to devote the nec­es­sary resources or make the nec­es­sary changes to be seri­ous and capa­ble part­ners in their own defense — nations appar­ent­ly will­ing and eager for Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers to assume the grow­ing secu­ri­ty bur­den left by reduc­tions in Euro­pean defense budgets.” 

But NATO can recov­er, Gates said. 

“The mem­bers of NATO – indi­vid­u­al­ly, and col­lec­tive­ly – have it well with­in their means to halt and reverse these trends, and instead pro­duce a very dif­fer­ent future,” he told the assem­bly. Gov­ern­ments need to take seri­ous steps to pro­tect defense bud­gets from being fur­ther gut­ted in the next round of aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, he said, and they need to allo­cate and coor­di­nate the resources they have and fol­low through on com­mit­ments to the alliance and one another. 

“It is not too late for Europe to get its defense insti­tu­tions and secu­ri­ty rela­tion­ships on track,” Gates said. “But it will take lead­er­ship from polit­i­cal lead­ers and pol­i­cy mak­ers on this con­ti­nent. It can­not be coaxed, demand­ed or imposed from across the Atlantic. 

“Over the life of the transat­lantic alliance, there has been no short­age of squab­bles and set­backs,” he con­tin­ued. “But through it all, we man­aged to get the big things right over time. We came togeth­er to make the tough deci­sions in the face of dis­sen­sion at home and threats abroad. And I take heart in the knowl­edge that we can do so again.” 

The secretary’s speech was the last event on a trip that took him to Sin­ga­pore, Afghanistan and the NATO meet­ing — his last for­eign trip before his June 30 retirement. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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