NATO’s Strategic Problem

For much of the post-World War II era, the United States believed it required a military capable of fighting and winning two major conflicts at once. In no small measure this was a legacy of the war just fought, with major action in the Pacific against Imperial Japan and in Europe against Nazi Germany. But it was also a product of the nature of the threat posed by Soviet-led communism, which seemed determined to dominate the Eurasian landmass on both its eastern and western ends, and where possible to expand its sway in the Middle East. The two-war standard also had the advantage of giving the United States a built-in surge capacity for any unexpected war that went over and above its deterrence posture in Asia and Europe—something that came into good use, for example, in the First Gulf War when driving Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait.

Of course, it wasn’t always clear that the United States actually had sufficient forces to fight and win two major conflicts at once. And indeed, by early 2012, when the Obama administration issued its Defense Policy Guidance, it was clear that, at best, the U.S. military had the capacity to succeed in only one major conflict, while holding off, not necessarily defeating, an adversary in another region. Having reduced its active duty forces by nearly a quarter from 1991 to 2011 and severely cut military platforms such as tanks, submarines, and combat aircraft during the same period, while at the same time facing a more aggressive “rising power” in China, it was the Obama team’s strategic calculus that the time had come to “pivot” to Asia, declare European security a completed project, and draw down from the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The United States would still be the preeminent military in the world, but it would no longer pretend to have the capacity to play the larger global role.

This reduction in the American strategic horizon was bipartisan in nature. President Obama’s vision for America’s role in the world, when it came to military affairs in particular, was consistently “less is more.” Less global policing and fewer mistakes would be made—or, as he famously put it: “Don’t do stupid shit.” At the same time, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were playing budgetary chicken and passed, with the president’s approval, the Budget Control Act of 2011. The BCA mandated a decade-long squeeze on all discretionary spending, including defense, if a congressional “super committee” on deficit reduction could not reach an agreement on reducing the federal deficit—which it couldn’t. The result was locking in a military force structure that U.S. strategists knew was sized for one major war but little more.

Whether consciously or not, Russia, China, Iran, and ISIS have taken advantage of that fact and pressed their advantage in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. So Washington now faces security threats in three theaters and does so with limited capacities. Toss in continuing conflict in Afghanistan and North Korea’s expanded ballistic and nuclear arsenal, and it is no surprise that the American military believes it is spread thin and uses the vanilla-sounding phrase “accepting greater risk” in its official statements to signal the gap between what it is being asked to do and what it can do.

It would be nice if this past year’s increases to the defense budget for 2018 and 2019 had fixed this problem, but the increases only bring the Pentagon in line with defense spending projected before the Budget Control Act and sequestration took effect. In short, it no doubt helps. But the current budget only sustains the one major war capacity that Obama’s Defense Policy Guidance originally laid out, with much of today’s increase going to fix problems in readiness and obvious shortfalls in manning and capabilities of the current force. And since the Trump administration’s own budget plans call for flat-lining defense spending starting in 2020, there is little reason for optimism about growing the active duty force to a size commensurate with the global tasks it faces.

It’s with this background that the debate about allies “stepping up” their defense contributions should be seen. As significant as the drawdown has been for the American military since 1991, the cut to key European allied forces—France, U.K. and Germany—has been even more striking. France has reduced its active duty force by more than 50 percent, eliminated more than 1,100 tanks out of a force of 1,350, and cut 600 combat aircraft from a fleet of 950. A similar story can be told about British and German forces, with the latter especially burdened in recent years with whole categories of platforms (tanks, transport planes, and submarines) largely unavailable for use.

Some of this drawdown in the U.S. and allied forces made sense in light of both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to restructure militaries for deployments for missions abroad. But when, in Wales in 2014, NATO members agreed to set a 2 percent of GDP minimum for defense expenditures, it did so realizing the atrophy of its militaries had gone too far and needed to be addressed. It’s true of course that the specific 2 percent target is an arbitrary figure. Yet given the state of many allied militaries and the immediate and long-term shortfalls they face, it’s not unreasonable to have set such a goal. If nothing else, the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense has provided a target readily understood by publics and elites alike and has helped keep most allies feet to the fire when it comes to budgets. Indeed, defense spending across the alliance has increased.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have upped their game in Europe: moving four battalions into the Baltic states and Poland, developing a rapid reaction force of 5,000 troops, rotating a U.S. Army armor brigade into Poland every nine months, creating new commands to bolster logistical support in theater and to secure sea lanes across the Atlantic and, with the Brussels summit, deciding to create by 2020 a multilateral force of 30 mechanized battalions and 30 air squadrons to be deployable within 30 days. Impressive—except none of these measures is sufficient to address the fact that, according to the results of RAND’s war games, Russian troops could possibly overrun the Baltic States in 60 hours, absent a much larger and more lethal NATO force in place.

Right now, the only national force capable of filling this gap is the American military. But to do so, the Pentagon must rob Peter to pay Paul. Every dedicated unit or squad that goes into Europe is one that can’t be deployed to cover existing shortfalls in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and East Asia. Army planners, for example, have to worry that doubling down in Eastern Europe comes with the risk that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula leaves them substantially short of what is required to fight and win that conflict. The U.S. Army will have an authorized force of approximately 485,000 in 2019. Most estimates of what it would need to carry out the existing national security strategy with assurance runs anywhere from 540,000 to a high of 600,000.

It’s a reality that our allies don’t appear either to be fully aware of or, more likely, simply don’t want to hear about. But it’s this reality—not Trump’s argument about what the allies “owe” the United States—that drives American strategists to push aggressively for NATO’s leading powers (U.K., Germany and France) to do even more.

Europe’s peace and stability remain a vital interest to the United States. However, America’s strategic predicament is that it faces multiple threats and adversaries spread across the globe. It’s a strategic predicament that Europe shares because the United States is no longer in a position to be the unequivocal guarantor of the continent’s security.

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