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German ISAF-soldier in AfghanistanImage: dapd

'Smart Defense'

February 5, 2012

The international financial crisis is creating more challenges for NATO. Europe, in particular, will have to find ways to save money without compromising it's military effectiveness.


How to save money without compromising NATO's defense capabilities was one of the key topics discussed at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. "The financial and debt crisis is weighing down national budgets, and therefore, also the defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic," German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in his opening speech.

European defense budgets have stagnated not only since the financial crisis. After 10 years of massive investments in the military, even the US now has to face hefty cuts. The US defense budget is still 660 billion dollars, but in the face of a dramatic budget deficit, the world's largest military power can no longer get around slimming things down. US Defense Minister Leon Panetta in January announced cuts of 487 billion dollars over the next ten years. This would amount to an eight percent cut.

New US priorities

In future, the US will be focusing more on interconnected, intelligent defense systems and expanded global security partnerships. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also attended the Munich conference, stressed that "Europe is America's partner of first resort."

In order to strengthen the transatlantic alliance, Panetta said in Munich that ,for the first time, the US wanted to supply troops to the so-called NATO Response Force (NRF). Also, troops are to be sent to Germany in the coming months in order to train together with European partners. But at the end of the day, the US delegation in Munich left no doubt that Washington's new priorities in terms of foreign and defense policies are in Asia and no longer in Europe.

"Smart Defense"

The planned withdrawal of two US brigades from Europe is the clearest sign of new priorities. It leaves Europe no choice: "In the future, Europe will have to do more for it's security," German Defense Minister de Maiziere said. In Munich, he called for a strengthening of the European side of NATO, rather than working on a separate European security alliance.

What's certain is that the eurozone crisis will force Europe to come up with smart solutions. "Our task is to use limited resources in a more efficient way," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Munich.

"Smart Defense" is the term used to describe whatever works to create synergies that allow a reduction of defense budgets without having to compromise military might and effectiveness. On the ground, this means greater efforts to collectively acquire and maintain equipment, and improve the multilateral connections between military units that are already linked within the alliance. There are, of course, many areas of cooperation among NATO members. So far, however, proposals and ideas on how to improve that cooperation have been rather rare.

Europe has to do more

Germany, for instance, has offered to take the lead in setting up a squadron of planes for maritime surveillance. This unit could be used in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. The proposed Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) unit is another new plan: Thirteen NATO members wouldl contribute five unmanned drones for surveillance missions. Another idea is the creation of a multinational headquarters for NATO and EU operations.

But even Smart Defense doesn't come for free. Panetta was blunt in reminding European governments that they would have to invest more in order to realize such plans.

One way to save money would be a joint missile defense system with Russia. While it was part of the talks in Munich, it is an issue that has not really made any progress. Some plans envisage a close link between a NATO and a Russian headquarters to facilitate cooperation and the exchange of data.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, reiterated Moscow's rejection of a NATO-based missile defense system. He warned that such plans would create a further rift between Moscow and the West. Lavrov acknowledged that there should be further talks on the issue, but said that so far he did not see "a light at the end of the tunnel."

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz, Munich / ai
Editor: Gregg Benzow

US and Russian flags
A joint missile defense shield with Russia is still far offImage: AP
Guido Westerwelle
Westerwelle called for a better coordination of effortsImage: dapd
Panetta and Clinton
Panetta and Clinton want Europe to step up their investmentsImage: dapd
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