Nato rhetoric fails to paper over cuts in national defence spends

Analysis: despite threat level, Nato members not prepared to spend more on defence

Aircraft from the British Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows aerobatic team fly over the Celtic Manor resort, the Welsh venue for the NATO summit, yesterday. Photograph:  Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Aircraft from the British Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows aerobatic team fly over the Celtic Manor resort, the Welsh venue for the NATO summit, yesterday. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

Ireland’s Graeme McDowell won the Ryder Cup for Europe four years ago on the 17th green at the Celtic Manor golf course in Newport, south Wales, beating Hunter Mahan of the United States. In the early-morning sunshine yesterday, groups of people stood on the green, heads craned upwards to watch a fly-past of Royal Air Force jets.

French and British destroyers were docked in Cardiff Bay, while a model of the still-to-be- built Lightning F35 jet was outside the clubhouse, near the hotel hosting the Nato summit.

‘You get what you pay for’

It was an impressive show of force, matched by Shakespearean language from Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said the allies would stand on watch together, united. “Defence does not come cheap and you get what you pay for,” said Rasmussen, who hands over Nato’s reins to former Norwegian premier Jens Stoltenberg next month.

Impressions at Celtic Manor, however, can deceive or at least exaggerate. In reality, budget cuts forced on national capitals by the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis have frayed Nato’s strength. Two years ago the US National Defence University argued that some European forces “are not ready, not trained and not sufficiently equipped”.

The Royal Navy does not have an aircraft carrier – two are being built but cannot be put into service until the end of the decade because the aircraft to fly from them have not been made. The Dutch have got rid of their heavy tanks while the British and French have just a few hundred each, and the Germany army will be cut to 180,000 people from 545,000 25 years ago.

US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron wanted to reverse the trend at the summit, encouraging colleagues to increase spending.

Each of the states should spend the 2 per cent of GDP target, with a fifth of that going on new equipment, Cameron told them yesterday: “That would send a strong message to those who threaten us.”

For years, the US has been irritated that it largely pays for Europe’s security, covering 72 per cent of Nato’s defence spending last year. Obama’s call for more European spending also reflects a recognition that US defence spending will fall from 4.6 per cent of GDP in 2011 to 2.9 per cent by 2017, when he leaves the White House.

The demand was muffled significantly in the communique agreed yesterday. Binding targets were not acceptable. Instead, the states agreed to halt further defence cuts and pledged “to aim to increase spending as budgets” allow over the next decade across the 28-member alliance.

Only four Nato states spend 2 per cent of their budgets on defence: the US, the UK, Greece and Estonia. A few more – Poland and the other Baltic states – have said they will get to that number.

The Germans, meanwhile, are far off that level, committing just 1.3 per cent a year. The Italians spend 1.2 per cent. Canada spends just 1 per cent.

Think-tank warning

Ironically, Cameron’s tough words were uttered just as the Royal United Services Institute – a respected, London-based defence think tank – warned that the UK will soon be failing to meet the target itself. Basing its judgment on British spending plans and economic growth forecasts, it estimated Britain’s defence budget would be 1.88 per cent in the 2015-2016 and 1.7 per cent by 2020-2021.

Even these numbers may be optimistic, Prof Malcolm Chalmers of the institute, who warned that spending cuts planned for 2015 could see spending fall to just 1.5 per cent of the UK’s GDP.

Meanwhile, there was further bad news for Cameron when the public accounts committee of the House of Commons ridiculed a plan to cut 20,000 soldiers from the armed forces and replace them with reservists. Saying the handling of the plan was “astonishing”, committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge said the chief of the defence staff was involved only in parts of the planning. The ministry of defence never tested whether it could recruit and train 30,000 reservists by 2019, while the army reserve has stayed steady at 19,000 for the last two years.

Leaving Newport last night, Rasmussen said the organisation was “faster, fitter, more flexible” following the two days of talks. A 4,000-strong rapid- reaction “spearhead” force “able to go anywhere in the world” will be set up; but not too rapidly, since it will not be in place until the end of next year. Military exercises already planned to be held in eastern Nato countries will go ahead but Nato has been careful to avoid building permanent bases that would breach a treaty with Moscow.

Sometimes, the challenges facing leaders in the age of disruption that marks the opening of the 21st century are immense; but sometimes the distance between rhetoric and reality can be enormous.

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