Forces Network today launches a new columnist section featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice. Here, the first of our commentaries examines the role of the United Kingdom in today's NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the principle of collective defence at the heart of the founding treaty of the military alliance.
Since 1949, the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s foreign and defence policy has been built around membership of NATO.
An alliance that was formed to protect Western Europe from invasion by the Soviet Union and ensure a united front against external aggression became central to how the UK would look to structure, equip and deploy its armed forces for decades to come.
Throughout the Cold War, the UK’s military commitment to NATO was substantial, built around a combination of an Army Corps based in Germany, a highly efficient RAF force, capable of both conventional attacks and tactical nuclear strikes, and a large Royal Navy force primarily intended to prevent Soviet naval units from threatening the North Atlantic sea-lanes and reinforce Norway if required.
These conventional forces were backed up by strategic nuclear forces using the Polaris missile system, which although ostensibly formed the UK’s national strategic deterrent capability, was in fact fully declared to NATO as a system for use during wartime.
By 1991, the UK had effectively integrated the bulk of its military capability into NATO and occupied many of the senior military positions in NATO, providing it with considerable influence over how the Alliance developed.
End Of The Cold War?
The end of the Cold War led to a period of uncertainty for NATO, an organisation that found itself out of a role or a potential enemy literally overnight.
The substantial UK contributions quickly reduced in size as peace dividends saw major cuts imposed on the British Armed Forces, a process mirrored by most other NATO nations.
The next 20 years were spent trying to keep relevant, focusing on a more global outlook and welcoming new member states into the fold, particularly from former Warsaw Pact member states in Eastern Europe.
While the Alliance sought relevance, it also decayed in credibility, as nations cut defence expenditure and lowered their commitment to the Alliance – reducing forces assigned to support NATO tasks and gapping posts in headquarters.
It took the decline in international relations and the resurgence of Russia as an aggressive power threatening the territorial integrity of neighbouring states, the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, to cause a fundamental change in attitudes towards defence by NATO member states.
The last few years have seen a significant shift in emphasis towards a renewed commitment to the Alliance, particularly in member states deploying more troops in Eastern Europe and forward deploying them to locations like Estonia and Poland to deter potential Russian aggression, and agreement by member states to increase defence expenditure.
Since 2014, every NATO member state has increased its defence budget to meet the new challenges, and all have agreed in principle to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP.
How Has Trump Shaken Up NATO?
To help shape the evolution of NATO policy, and ensure the continued commitment by states to the Alliance, NATO holds a major summit every two years bringing together Heads of State and Government leaders to discuss how the Alliance should evolve.
Normally these are relatively sedate affairs, involving keynote speeches, discussions on policy development, announcements on new commitments or operations, and finally a carefully crafted and finely-honed communique that sets out what NATO intends to spend the next two years doing.
This year’s NATO summit proved to be a very different experience indeed.
The arrival of President Donald Trump at his first NATO summit certainly proved an interesting moment for the NATO alliance.
Trump, not renowned for his love of subtle diplomacy instead forced the agenda to focus heavily on funding of NATO, particularly getting member states to reach 2% of GDP on Defence spending in order to share the burden more equitably.
His core argument was that NATO members were effectively freeloading off the USA, relying on the higher burden carried by US taxpayers in order to spend less on their own defences.
In reportedly stormy scenes, he emphasised to other leaders the importance of all states meeting the 2% target, and in time growing this to 4% of GDP.
While Trump’s diplomatic style may be unconventional, it is hard to deny that it has had the effect of galvanising allies into acting.
There is arguably increasing political and public awareness that Western defence expenditure is probably too low for the prevailing security environment and that more needs to be done.
In late 2017, it was reported that over half of all French military aircraft were unable to fly, while in early 2018, the German Navy was unable to put any of its six submarines to sea, while its air force could not deploy a single A400M transport plane.
To rectify these sorts of issues, many European countries have now agreed to spend more on defence, to increase readiness, reduce maintenance backlogs and help increase their ability to respond to a crisis.
The length of National Service and numbers recruited is increasing in some nations like Denmark, while elsewhere modernisation efforts continue to bring newer capabilities like the F35 fighter, or cyber defence capabilities into service.
This is a slow process though – it is easy to slash defence expenditure and reduce the size of a nation’s armed forces, but it takes much longer to rebuild them when the security environment changes.
Simply throwing money at a problem does not by itself solve the issue – you still require the recruits to sign up, the refit work to be completed and new equipment delivered.
This all takes time and a degree of patience – something that arguably President Trump does not possess.
What Is The UK's Future Role?
The challenge for NATO states will be to convince the USA over the next two years that they are serious about increasing spending on defence, shouldering a bigger level of responsibility for security issues and in turn generating the perception that they are reducing the burden on the US.
It is also important to generate the impression that the money is being spent wisely, with at least 20% of it going on capital procurement of new equipment, and not sucked into the morass of pay and pensions that makes up so much of many NATO states theoretical spending on defence.
In its simplest form, this could be met through states increasing the ability of NATO to meet its new ’30-30-30’ commitment (deploy 30 squadrons, battalions and ships in 30 days) without looking for US backing.
Alternatively, other members could look to step up their commitment to burden sharing overseas – for instance by deploying more troops on NATO missions like in Afghanistan or supporting air policing deployments in the Baltic and the Black Sea.
The UK is particularly well placed to support these efforts and help demonstrate a leading role in NATO.
It was announced at the conference that an additional 400 troops will deploy to Afghanistan, while it will continue to play a major role in ongoing deployments like providing warships to support MCMV operations, and permanently basing personnel in locations like Poland to deter external aggression.
It has also activated a new ‘Joint Operating Area’ in the Atlantic to better coordinate the tracking of Russian submarines in the region.
Coupled to this is the prominent rise in UK influence at NATO Headquarters, where the former UK Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, has just taken over as chair of the NATO Military Committee.
When his leadership of this influential committee is added to the fact that the UK permanently holds the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe position (a 4* general) and is bolstering its overall support to the Alliance HQ structures, it appears that the UK is well placed to shape and influence how NATO policy and actions develop over the next few years.
This debate matters because NATO has once again found meaning and a purpose. For the first time in decades, there is a clearly defined threat in the form of Russia that has shown little hesitation in pushing an aggressive foreign policy in what it considers to be ‘their’ area of interest.
Many of NATO’s smaller nations, such as the Baltic States are genuinely fearful that an assertive Russia could take advantage of a divided Alliance and seek to regain territory they feel was lost in 1991 and reunite the Kaliningrad enclave in Eastern Europe with the rest of Russia.
The risk for NATO is that if it does not present a credible and united posture in the face of this aggression, or appears divided and uncoordinated, then an opportunity exists for Russia to cause mischief. While the United States seems determined to get more nations to increase spending on Defence, there is also the increasing risk that under President Trump, they will potentially reduce or remove their commitment to NATO.
In an era where American foreign policy is increasingly defined in isolationist and binary tendencies that imply that there are no allies, merely short-term deals, NATO looks increasingly vulnerable.
It is now worryingly feasible to imagine a world soon where the US scales down or draws back entirely from its commitments to NATO. In those circumstances, the prospects for European security seem increasingly bleak.
While some smaller security organisations are emerging – such as the growth of informal networks between the Baltic states, or the growing role by the European Union in security issues, there is no natural new alliance that could credibly fill the roles played by NATO, particularly the US capabilities.
The loss of NATO as a credible military alliance would have a devastating effect on Western security, and which would take many decades to recover from. Much of NATO’s strengths come from its ability to create standards that allow different nations to work together with similar equipment, and in developing shared tactics, doctrine and policy. All of this has evolved over nearly 70 years of operations and were NATO to be abandoned, it could easily take another 70 years to redesign.
The UK, therefore, has a critical role to play here, which in part will be defined by the outcome of its ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ (MDP) review.
This is likely to focus on enhancements to UK capabilities that bolster the ability to work with allies – for instance strengthening cyber defences and intelligence and surveillance capabilities to help better coordinate and support military operations.
The challenge for the MOD will be to secure sufficient funding from the Treasury to ensure that these enhancements do not come with a price tag of other capabilities being scrapped or cut to pay for them though.
The message from the US is clear – it has had enough of NATO members not pulling their weight, and for the UK there is a clear expectation that the British Government must fund defence appropriately, ensuring that capabilities essential to the Alliance are not sacrificed as part of spending cuts. The view in Washington is that now is not the time to reduce defence expenditure, let alone scrap ships or aircraft.
The British Government will, therefore, need to play a careful balancing act in the outcomes of the MDP, and ensure that whatever the review findings are, that they are sustainable and affordable and do not put the MOD into further debt, but at the same time doesn’t reduce capabilities too far.
It will be extremely difficult for the UK to retain credibility or influence when demanding other NATO states spend 2% of GDP on defence to then go and cut their own defence capabilities.
Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General famously said that NATO existed to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Arguably not much has changed, as the next two years will prove to be of critical importance to NATO’s future as it tries to evolve into a force that is seen as credible enough to deter aggression and keep the Russians out, demonstrates sufficient efforts to enhance capabilities and spend more on defence to keep the Americans in, and while not necessarily keeping the Germans down, does ensure that all NATO states continue to work together as one, rather than being split up or divided artificially by those who would gain the most from seeing it destroyed.