The Madrid NATO Summit - A triumph of style over substance?

In this opinion piece, Sean Corbett, founder of and CEO of IntSight Global and Chairman of Janes National Security Advisory Board, reflects on the recent NATO Summit

As NATOs leaders reflect on the recent NATO Summit in Madrid, it will be no doubt with a sense of ‘job well done’.  Mainstream media, initially at least, have largely been lauding the event as a transformational event for the Alliance and has faithfully repeated the carefully constructed headlines emanating from a highly polished NATO PR machine.  And up to a point they are right.  For example, the agreed accession of Sweden and Finland is highly significant.  In addition to the obvious political message to Russia (whatever the concessions negotiated by Turkey), both will bring real military capability and credibility and are already well integrated and interoperable with many NATO forces, having been active and value-added partners in NATO led operations over an extended period.  The re- establishment of meaningful numbers of permanently based US forces onto mainland Europe (a combat brigade to Romania) and the UK (2 squadrons of F-35 combat aircraft) is another headline, which will do much both to rebuild trans-Atlantic trust and will undoubtedly make Putin look twice, as will the eye-catching establishment of a forward headquarters in Poland.  The new Strategic Concept, updated for the first time since 2010, when it did not even identify Russia as a security threat, now more realistically sets out the contemporary security environment faced by NATO and gives more than a nod to China as a ‘challenge to our interests, security and values’.  Those words must have been hard won in the context of some European nations previously in denial of China as a threat.   

But beyond that, (which as NATO summits go, was pretty fulsome) how much of the headline straplines bear scrutiny in the cold light of day?  The Secretary General set the tone of the summit with a speech in which he announced an increase of forces at readiness from 40k to over 300k, but other than through some creative accounting, it is hard to see how this will be achieved.  There were no national declarations of increases in military numbers suggesting that this 7-fold increase in forces at readiness would come from existing resources, presumably by declaring more national formations to NATO and bringing those forces up to greater readiness.  Take the additional brigade that Germany has pledged to contribute, comprising 3,500 troops.  Although earmarked to bolster the Lithuanian Armed Forces , they will remain in Germany, with only a small headquarters element deployed forward.   Bringing these forces up to the required readiness and sustaining them will be extremely expensive and would be likely to rapidly eat up any increase in defence budgets.  Achieving the 2% of GDP that NATO nations are signed up to (as a baseline not a target as is often misconstrued), currently only realised by 8 nations, will do little more than halt the decline in national defence capabilities over the previous decade.  Even with some creative accounting in which existing national higher readiness forces are declared to NATO, it is difficult to envisage a 300k increase at ‘a few days or weeks’ notice’ on a sustainable basis.    The UK Prime Ministerial announcement of an increase for defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade is meaningless in practical terms, given that is 8 years hence and the new security environment will by then likely to have been reset for good or bad.  Equipment contributions to Ukraine are factored into the UK’s defence spending, as are pensions for the military and civil service.  At current inflation levels and coupled with the usual procurement overspend bow-wave, an increase in the defence budget is needed now just to maintain the status quo. 

A real concern is what NATO nations are making of the underwhelming performance of the Russian military thus far in their invasion of Ukraine.   The scale of their losses in both equipment and personnel has surprised even the most optimistic western analyst but this is leading to a dangerous narrative in some circles, in which the Russian conventional military ability is in danger of being dismissed as a future strategic threat. In doing so it potentially gives capitals a convenient ‘get out clause' when the thorny issue of increased defence budgets is broached.  It presupposes that Russia will not learn the hard lessons of its Ukraine operation, which it belatedly appears to be doing, and also that it will not regenerate its forces accordingly, both of which would be dangerous assumptions.  While sanctions, if maintained, will have some impact on the ability to rebuild its conventional military, Russia has already increased its defence spending by 40% in the first 4 months of the year, and all indications are that this trend will continue, even at the expense of the more general economy.   The Russia-Ukraine conflict is likely to roll on for many months yet, with neither side achieving a decisive victory.  It will increasingly become a war of attrition, in which a combination of political stamina and continued investment in materiel will be critical and the ultimate victor (however that is defined) will be the one which commits the most to the fight and which can regenerate the best.  For Ukraine this means continuing support by NATO nations, at a cost to their own defence capabilities.  

So while there was much to applaud at the Summit in terms of headlines and aspirations, the devil will be in the execution.  Practical measures to realise improved force levels force posture on a sustainable basis must match the rhetoric, which will require defence expenditure significantly above what appears to have been committed over an extended period.   

Sean Corbett is the founder of and CEO of IntSight Global and Chairman of Janes National Security Advisory Board. He retired from the Royal Air Force in September 2018 as a two-star general after a 30-year career as a professional intelligence officer. He was the first Non-US Deputy Director of a major US Intelligence Agency

In this opinion piece, Sean Corbett, founder of and CEO of IntSight Global and Chairman of Janes Nat...

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