Gates: NATO Has Become Two-tiered
By Jim Garamone, American Forces
Brussels – June 10, 2011 – (AFPS)
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.
DoD Photos by Cherie Cullen
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,”
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.”
“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
“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.