July 15. 2024. 6:44

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NATO looks at how to make itself ‘war-ready’

NATO leaders’ new defence plans, requiring record-high military spending, will face scrutiny when they meet on Wednesday (10 July) to discuss ways to ramp up the alliance’s defence capabilities.

“There are no cost-free options with an aggressive Russia as a neighbour, there are no risk-free options in a war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday (9 July).

“The biggest cost and the greatest risk will be if Russia wins in Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told an audience of policymakers and top military brass in Washington. “We cannot let that happen.”

The push comes after high-ranking Western military officials – including Germany, Poland and Sweden, stressed that NATO members need to be ready for war within the next decade.

Facing an increased need to ramp up their rhetoric and show they are serious about being able to deter Russia if needed, NATO leaders in Washington this week are looking for a compelling deterrence story to tell.

They hope their message might have even more weight on American soil, with the prospect of a Trump return to the White House after the November elections. They fear this could mean a possible tempering of US contributions to support Ukraine and the security of individual NATO countries.

A long-term task

Last year in Vilnius, NATO leaders reviewed the alliance’s deterrence and defence plans by adopting a specific new regional defence plan.

For that, over the past twelve months, NATO members focused on pledging troops and military equipment to the new scheme.

However, the new plans currently do not have enough capabilities to make the strategy operational, several NATO diplomats said when asked about the readiness of those plans, which also do not yet include the two newest alliance members, Sweden and Finland.

An additional 35 to 50 extra brigades would be needed to make the plans work, Reuters reported.

“NATO currently has 500,000 troops at high-readiness across the alliance, and has put 90,000 of them to the test this year during Steadfast Defender, its biggest exercise since the Cold War,” Oana Lungescu, distinguished fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Euractiv.

NATO’s new defence plans will also require “more large land formations, and especially more key capabilities, such as air and missile defence, deep precision fires, combat helicopters, and logistics,” Lungescu said.

“This is a long-term, transformational task,” one senior NATO official said, adding that the “extra money will take time to have an impact”.

“That will require sustained investment over the long-term, with NATO countries moving towards spending more than 2% GDP of defence,” Lungescu said.

Rising pressure on underspenders

NATO leaders are expected to renew their pledge to honour the alliance’s 2% GDP defence spending target in Washington this week.

Over the past two years, NATO – and particularly the United States – have pressured members to increase spending after years of underspending in pre-Ukraine war times.

But European NATO members point out that Washington’s long-running criticism of them for not contributing to burden-sharing within the alliance no longer reflects reality.

In a sharp increase – boosted by bipartisan US pressure and Russia’s threat – 23 out of 32 members are expected to reach the spending target this year, with non-US spending up by 18%.

Laggards include Spain (1.28%), Belgium (1.3%), Canada (1.37%), Italy (1.49%) and Portugal (1.55%), while other countries like Luxembourg (1.29%) or Slovenia (1.29%) find it politically difficult to justify ramping up their spending.

But pressure is expected to increase on underspenders, according to NATO diplomats, with some saying that those reaching the current target “are almost certainly going to have to carry higher”.

“Hence, we were very clear that 2% GDP was a minimum,” the NATO diplomat quoted above said.

“Poland is already spending over 4% this year, the Baltic countries over 3%, other European countries and Canada need to follow suit, and invest more in both forces and capabilities, in order to ensure that NATO’s defence plans do not remain on paper only,” Lungescu said.

On Tuesday, defence ministers from the region called for their NATO counterparts to aim beyond the current spending target.

“Our voice has been very clear: 2% is not enough (…) So, we have to go to 2.5%, maybe even to 3% GDP,” Estonia’s Defence Minister Hanno Pevkur told an event in Washington.

“We need to invest more in order to get more capabilities,” Pevkur said.

Despite the pressure, several NATO diplomats told Euractiv they did not expect the goalposts to move towards 3% in the short term. They acknowledged, however, that making NATO war-ready will demand much higher investments.

NATO’s 2% target currently does not consider human contributions to operations or military aid provided to Ukraine, so some NATO members would like to discuss changing how it is calculated.

However, the primary goal for everyone would be to spend 2% of GDP, noting that it is a ‘big ask’ to raise the target when a third of NATO allies do not yet meet it, one NATO diplomat said, echoed by multiple others.

War-economy bid

“[This] NATO summit’s task will be to make the regional plans feasible; in other words, to back them up with the necessary capabilities,” German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters on Tuesday (9 July).

“We also need an efficient, more capable defence industry that can supply our armed forces in a sustainably resilient manner, even when things get tight,” Pistorius said.

In a bid to ramp up the Western defence industry’s production capacity, NATO leaders will pledge to develop national production plans under the new defence industrial pledge, which they are expected to agree on Wednesday (10 July).

For the plans to work, “we need more mass, we need more stuff, we need more modernisation, more rapid adoption of new technologies (…) all of that is going to cost money, and it’s going to cost more than 2% GDP for most [NATO] allies”, the NATO senior official quoted above said.

Read more with Euractiv

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