NATO at 70: Rejuvenated with U.S. Support

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will be in Washington April 2-4 to celebrate the 70thanniversary of the alliance.  This year also marks the fifth in a recovery of U.S. and allied defense spending and capability, which began after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and has accelerated during the Trump administration.

An essay by F. Charles Parker IV* in the most recent issue of the Journal of Strategy and Politics analyzes the rebuilding of the U.S. strategic posture and leadership role in NATO, following a long period of disengagement. He provides a succinct version in a February 15, 2019 opinion piece in Stars and Stripes, entitled “Trump is tougher on Russia than reporting indicates.”

The administration’s FY 2020 budget request for the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) is $5.9 billion, the second highest since the program began, but 9% below the $6.5 billion appropriated for the current fiscal year.  That has given Trump’s critics a new reason to question his commitment to NATO.

Yet the details of the proposal indicate a continuation of the strategy to reinvigorate the alliance, led by a more robust U.S. presence.  Despite the top-line dip, proposed spending for increased presence of U.S. forces is just over $2 billion, the highest since EDI began. As in past years, the Army is set to receive the lion’s share of the funds, “which is good, because we need ground forces,” Parker notes, referring to the withdrawal of all U.S. armor that was finalized in October of 2013.

Two other lines of effort slated for funding increases in FY 2020 are exercises and training, and building partnership capacity (including $250 million for weapons and other security assistance to Ukraine).  Spending on prepositioning and infrastructure will decline, after several years of significant increases.

As Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan put it during a March 26 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense budget, “what it represents is that the standing up of the initiative, so think of it as either the set-up costs or non-recurring costs, are complete, and now it’s really about sustaining the level of effort, and conducting more exercises, and actually deploying more troops.”  DoD Comptroller David L. Norquist underscored the point: “while the cost is going down, the actual level of activity is going up.”

Aside from the 2020 budget, questions have arisen over whether unobligated EDI infrastructure funds from prior budgets could be diverted to pay for U.S.-Mexico border wall construction under President Trump’s emergency order. A list of “unawarded” military construction projects recently provided to Congress by DoD includes over $700 million of projects (e.g., ammunition and fuel storage facilities, port and airstrip improvements) under EDI and its predecessor European Reassurance Initiative that will not have been awarded to contractors by the end of FY 2019, so the funds might be re-directed to the border wall.  But DoD says the administration would seek to “back fill” any of those amounts in the FY 2020 appropriations bill.

“NATO works when America leads,” Parker contends, and the increased U.S. commitment of personnel and equipment, plus pressure on allies to do more in the face of Russian aggression, has scored important results. During the past four years, NATO Europe and Canada as a group have raised defense spending in real terms (2010 dollars) by $41 billion, with 68% of that increase coming in 2017 and 2018, according to data published by the organization. In a notable show of common resolve, NATO this summer will begin construction of a large storage facility for armored vehicles, weapons and ammo at an air base near Powidz, Poland, with $260 billion of joint funding from the NATO Security Investment Program.

The progress of the past several years is helping to make the 70 year-old alliance “fit for the future,” according to the secretary general’s most recent annual report.  Yet there are concerns about whether the effort will be sustained.  For example, the German coalition government has drafted a defense blueprint that envisions smaller expenditures after next year, implying a departure from the country’s political commitment to NATO.  Germany has boosted its defense expenditures by over €7 billion since 2014, and contributed the second largest number of troops to an important NATO-wide military exercise last fall using an Article 5 scenario.  But more will be required.

Here’s U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, at a March 13 House Armed Services Committee hearing:  “Today we’ve got eight NATO allies that meet the [stated burden-sharing goals, including 2% of GDP for defense spending].  There are 10 that have committed to be there by 2024… and they’ve got a plan that demonstrates that.  And I’ve seen a steady growth in this, in terms of the dollars that have returned.   We’ve got to continue, in my opinion, to discuss with our allies the meeting of those responsibilities, because in today’s security environment, they need to invest, and they need to modernize.”


*Col. F. Charles Parker IV (USA, Ret.), a Principal of the Institute for the Study of Strategy and Politics, served in a variety of command and staff positions in Europe, Vietnam, Korea, and the United States during his career as a U.S. Army officer. After retiring from the military, he was a member of NATO’s international staff from 1996 until 2012. He has an MA in Russian Studies and a PhD in History from Georgetown University.

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