Crisis leaves NATO counting its pennies | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 20.05.2012
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Crisis leaves NATO counting its pennies

The financial crisis has forced NATO members to save money, and defense spending hasn't been spared the budgetary guillotine. Militaries have to do more with less, NATO's head said, explaining his "smart defense" policy.

Heads of government and state of NATO countries have 24 hours at their summit in Chicago to attempt to redistribute the burdens and financing of a shared defense. Back at the 2002 summit in Prague they committed to bundling the financing of military capabilities and arms projects. But little has come of that promise, as members are slow to cede sovereignty, according to NATO diplomats. The ongoing economic crisis, however, has forced them to work together more in recent years.

Money is biggest problem

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the financial crisis and the tight budgets it has caused the biggest problems the alliance will face in coming years. The conclusion he reached, and has repeatedly presented at NATO meetings since the beginning of the year, has been doing more with less.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Smart defense will help the alliance without breaking budgets, Rasmussen said

"We have to set the right priorities, specialize and concentrate on what we can do best and what is most urgently needed," he said during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in April, adding that a "smart defense" policy was needed to spend money more intelligently.

The Chicago summit is NATO's chance to see exactly what Rasmussen envisions as part of that strategy.

Specialize and concentrate

NATO's current policy of securing airspace over the Baltic countries with alliance assets will be one successful example of collective security. The Baltic nations no longer maintain interceptor jets of their own, instead their skies are patrolled by a rotation of other larger countries, including Germany. A similar setup is used in Luxembourg, Iceland and Slovenia, which do not have air defense capabilities of their own.

In exchange, the Latvian Army provides bomb diffusion experts for deployment in Afghanistan. Latvian Deputy Defense Minister Janis Sarts said that by saving on jets his country is able to spend money on training for these special forces.

"We increase our ability to cooperate and at the same time have forces that we can supply to NATO operations," he said.

Military planners put together a list of 20 to 30 top projects they want political leaders to sign off on. Another example of "smart defense" is the alliance's European missile defense system. The United States provides the defensive system, which Europeans contribute to paying for over the long-term. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said he wants to include Patriot missiles already in Germany in the plan to keep the cost of participation down for Berlin.

Big projects, big bills

A piggy bank

Countries need to decide what to spend their defense funding on

Another large-scale project is a reconnaissance system to watch troop movements in enemy territory. The highly sensitive planes, which are each about the size of a jumbo jet, will be stationed in Italy and remotely controlled. The unmanned planes will be able to circle enemy territory and send back data to commanders."It's certain to take a generation until it's done," one NATO diplomat said.

The system's price tag comes in at about 5 billion euros ($6.4 billion), making it impossible for a single country to bear the costs. European defense ministers have also agreed to buy and operate aircraft to fuel fighters while in the air.

No cheap excuses

US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, like his predecessor, called on European countries not to use "smart defense" as an excuse to cut military spending. The European Armaments Agency estimated that defense budgets would continue to shrink. The United States was not exempt from the trend: It aims to spend $490 billion less than originally planned.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Panetta saw his budget cut by billions

French Gen. Stephane Abrial, who is responsible for the transformation of NATO, wrote in an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune that Europeans are too dependent on the United States in too many areas, which was shown by operations in Libya. European allies did not possess sufficient reconnaissance capabilities, including drones, or enough cruise missiles. As the United States turns its focus to Asia and the Pacific, Europeans need to do more in their own interest at home, he wrote.

The biggest financial savings for NATO will not be coming from a "smart defense" policy, but from the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014. The United States annually spends about $90 billion for the 90,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Once they head home, the NATO alliance will continue paying just $4.1 billion to Afghan security forces.

"Of course, it is less expensive to pay for local forces rather than sending your own soldiers," Rasmussen said.

Author: Bernd Riegert / sms
Editor: Gregg Benzow