Rebuilding Defenses: America and the NATO Alliance

by Stephen Bryen and Shoshana Bryen*

The U.S. spends approximately $600 billion annually on defense – accounting for one third of global defense spending.  Our two nearest competitors are China, spending about $146 billion and Russia spending $66 billion. How is it, then, that both Russia and China can challenge U.S. power?  Two points should be made up front:

The U.S. spends about 25 percent of its defense dollars on personnel, creating a well educated, well-motivated and very marriedwithchildren force. Taking that out, we’re still spending three times the Chinese and more than six times the Russian budget.

American forces have been fighting continuously for the past fifteen years, resulting in American equipment that is, for the most part, old and worn out, difficult to maintain, and being ground down on a daily basis. Spending on spare parts and depot level maintenance has had low priority and the repair lines are long.

But that isn’t the whole story.

What Does it Cost? Part I, the American Part

The U.S. spends about $120 billion on defense procurement each year, most of which is for resupply or new equipment. The price of new equipment continues to soar, and the services have all indulged in weapons that are highly over priced and offer only incremental improvements – in short, not cost effective. The Navy invested in the largely useless littoral combat ship when it really needed a new generation of guided missile destroyers. The Air Force’s F-35 will suck up $1-1.5 trillion on the bet that in the 2020’s it will replace the F-16’s now in service.

Updating and/or properly protecting vital equipment and troops takes a back seat. The Army’s armor force does not have active protection that is vital to force survivability on the modern battlefield. Our allies don’t have these systems either, but the Russians do. 

U.S. and allied ground and sea based air defense systems are weak, relying on systems that are quite old, such as the Patriot, which dates back to 1969.  While it has been modernized, getting it deployed on the battlefield is no small task and the system – even upgraded – can be fooled or jammed as well as easily targeted. On the other hand, in a continental war, NATO aircraft would be facing formidable Russian air defense in depth. 



What Does it Cost? Part II, the NATO Alliance

When the U.S. decides to undertake a military mission, no one asks, “How many defense dollars will be dedicated to the mission?” Or, What is the impact on equipment and manpower?  How does the mission weaken the overall strategic posture of the nation?  How likely is it that lost equipment will be replaced and how soon?  Are funds available to repair equipment damaged in war?” Or anything.

The result can be seen in Afghanistan, where billions of dollars worth of American hardware were left behind or sold off for a time to foreign scrap dealers rather than returned to the U.S.  

Similar questions should have been asked of NATO expansion into Central Europe, which the U.S. energetically supported. No one asked, “How can we afford to defend these countries given that our overall military readiness is so degraded?” Or, “What contribution will these new NATO members make to defend themselves and the alliance?” Or anything.

The U.S. is unprepared to support the defense of the Baltic States and the Baltic States are unprepared to defend themselves. Only Poland has taken its defense seriously; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have little or no armor of their own (no tanks at all), and no useful air force. They are essentially protected by defense welfare. And welfare is not easily supplied, although the US, the UK and to a lesser degree Germany, is trying to help by prepositioning some equipment on the front line or in Germany and Holland. But it is – according to a Rand Corporation study – below even minimal levels to protect these states from a successful Russian attack.

We know the deficiencies in NATO, but it is no small matter to rebuild American and NATO capabilities. A few rules might help.

Rules for the Road

1. Avoid quagmires, and when you find yourself in one, get out.  There is no articulated end game in Afghanistan that makes continuing use of American forces there sensible. More troops might prop up the government in Kabul for a while, but to what end? And Iraq, now dominated by Sh’ia interests linked to Iran, is not a strategic success. While the fight against ISIS in the north may be justified, there are questions about the cost and lack of progress.  At what point should Afghan and Iraqi forces be able to secure their own national interest? And what if their view of their interest is different than ours?

There are those who want us to do more in Yemen, and those who want us to arm and train the Ukrainians, which will surely invite the Russians to step up their intervention.  To what end?

2. Upgrade existing systems Our procurement system is out of alignment. The first priority should be ensuring the equipment we presently have is fully functional and has the latest technology inserted wherever possible.  There is a wide range of land equipment that needs to be upgraded.  We should be investing both in air defense and missile defense.  The Air Force should wait before committing to large numbers of the F-35 – it is probably five years from combat readiness. It is also extremely costly, expensive to operate, hard to support, difficult to deploy, and of uncertain military effectiveness.  As for the Navy, investing in multi-billion dollar programs such as the $4.5 billion per copy Zumwalt destroyer actually weakens the Navy because the ship is not affordable.

Zumwalt gets a push

3.  Insist on a “Cost of Mission” assessment before committing forces.  While not every crisis allows for reflection, most of the actions the U.S. has been engaged in for the past twenty or more years could have been thought through better.  This applies especially to Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that have together cost between $4 and $6 trillion!  While the first Gulf War was probably unavoidable, our failure to remove Saddam led to a second war, much higher costs in blood and treasure, and a country that is on the edge of civil war and dominated by Iran. In Afghanistan, after nearly 15 years, we continue to burn resources we cannot afford to an end no one can define.

4. Rebuild the NATO allianceNATO has to pull its weightAfter the fall of the Soviet Union the NATO countries liquidated much of their war-fighting capabilities.  In 1991, the German Army operated 2,125 Leopard 2 tanks of all versions. To reduce maintenance costs, the German military sold, donated or scrapped 90% of its inventory. Approximately 250 – older and lacking active protection systems – Leopard 2 tanks remain in service as of March 2015, not nearly enough to provide defense of German territory, let alone support operations in the Baltic States.  Similarly, the Netherlands dumped its armor including its M113 armored personnel carriers, most of which we either scrapped or sold to Egypt. Since the end of the Cold War, the Netherlands’ defense spending as a percentage of GDP has decreased by approximately half.

While Britain, at least on paper, seems to have done better, the UK also has liquidated vital equipment and downsized its fighting forces.  Still pending force reductions in the UK led one British paper to say that the defense cuts “would mean the smallest Army since the 1770s, when Britain lost the American colonies.”  Other cuts in the Navy and Air Force mean that the British military won’t have enough personnel even to man the equipment they now have.

For NATO to work it needs sufficient capability to go the defense of any NATO country needing help.  Today that capability is lacking. 

5. But do not expand it.  NATO has been pushing to expand, making the Russians very nervous.  Strong voices in NATO had wanted to add the Ukraine, and NATO is trying to entice neutral Sweden and Finland into the alliance. While Sweden and Finland have serious military capabilities, especially air power, expanding NATO is a recipe for weakness, not strength.  There is far too much rhetoric about Russian aggressiveness and far too little determination to provide the capabilities that will deter Russian adventurism

Where is the plan?  

What the West has, and it is helpful, is the deployment of equipmenttanks, helicopters, aircraft – and some troops to the Baltics. But this is a stopgap measure at best. NATO needs a new plan and NATO members need to be assigned specific responsibilities to fulfill.  The first order of business is to solidify the NATO alliance by strengthening its existing capabilities, planning for equipment to meet real contingencies, setting focused targets for systems and technology most needed to maintain the peace, and setting realistic targets for defense spending based on the most urgent needs

With a plan in place and responsibilities ordered, the U.S. and NATO countries can begin the process of restoring the deterrent capabilities of the most successful peacetime alliance in history.


*Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director at the Jewish Policy Center. She is a Member of the Advisory Board of the Aleethia Foundation that provides opportunities for wounded veterans of the Iran and Afghanistan wars, and is a Member of the Board of the Naval Academy Jewish Chapel Foundation.

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