NATO is more than a GDP pledge — it's about the safety of our world
© Getty Images

One has to wonder who is briefing President Trump on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — or how many briefers he has ignored — when he gives a speech on the alliance and focuses on the fact that “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” and again treats a goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense as debt, saying “many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years. Over the last eight years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined.”

A political spending goal is just that: an effort to exhort nations to do more. They don’t build up a debt. It is also pointless — and somewhat dishonest — to talk about total U.S. defense spending as if it was all for NATO. Unlike most of our NATO allies, we have major global commitments, and our level of spending on NATO is only a fraction of our defense effort. Even so, our level of spending on defense is well under 4 percent of our GDP and roughly half the burden on our economy that it was during the Cold War.


Equally important, the forces we actually deploy in Europe are also relatively small by Cold War standards. In 1989, just before the end of the Cold War, the U.S. still had some 326,400 military personnel in the U.S. European Command, and 242,800 ground troops and U.S. Air Force (USAF) personnel forward deployed in Germany.


We had two full corps in Germany with four divisions and two brigades, some 5,000 tanks, 940 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 1,600 artillery weapons, 120 surface-to-surface missiles, and a full Air Force with 264 combat aircraft. We had 279 more combat aircraft in the U.K., and well over 100 combat aircraft in other countries, as well as a massive naval presence in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Today, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) reports in its 2017 edition of The Military Balance that we have 40,500 military personnel in Germany. This is only 17 percent of the 1990 total, and only about 3 percent of a worldwide total of 1,381,250 — which in turn is only 65 percent of the 1990 total.

The U.S. Army force in a united Germany only deploys one Special Forces Group, one cavalry Stryker brigade combat team (SBCT), one armored reconnaissance battalion, one artillery battalion, and one heavy combat aviation group. The USAF deployed one fighter wing with 24 F-16C/Ds. The role of U.S. Navy and Marine forces based in the Mediterranean region has also changed to the point where almost all activity is directed towards threats outside Europe.

This is scarcely a reason for the president not to assert the U.S. commitment to Article 5, which is the cornerstone of the NATO Charter. It states, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

And yet, Trump is also right when he says that, “even 2 percent of GDP is insufficient to close the gaps in modernizing, readiness, and the size of forces. We have to make up for the many years lost. Two percent is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats.” He may even understate the problem. It would take many countries years — if not forever — to rebuild their forces to the level needed to provide a truly secure deterrent to Russia at 2 percent of their GDP.

The fact is that the 2 percent goal is meaningless in shaping an effective deterrent defense for NATO. It is merely an arbitrary goal set to try to keep European spending higher, just as calling for 20 percent of defense spending to be spent on procurement says nothing about what should be procured or what the Alliance really needs. A study by the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, entitled “Alliance at Risk Strengthening European Defense in an Age of Turbulence and Competition” makes this all too clear.

Germany, whose forces should be the core of the NATO alliance has seen its defense expenditures (in constant 2013 dollars) drop from $67.2 billion dollars in 1991 to $50.62 billion in 2000 and down to $42.87 billion in 2015. Defense expenditures have dropped from 2.2 percent of GDP in 1991 to 1.49 percent in 2000, and 1.11 percent in 2015. Its military personnel have dropped from 467,000 in 1991 to 321,000 in 2000 and later down to 181,207 in 2015. Its main battle tanks have dropped from 7,000 in 1991 to 2,815 in 2000 and then to 410 in 2015. Its combat aircraft have dropped from 638 in 1991 to 457 in 2000 and down to 237 in 2015.

France is only marginally better, even though it’s much closer to the 2 percent goal. The United Kingdom’s expenditures are too low to sustain its force posture even though it spent 2.08 percent of its GDP in 2015. Poland is on the key front in deterring Russia, and spent 1.9 percent of its GDP in 2015, But active Polish military personnel dropped from 305,000 in 1991 to 217,290 in 2000 and 99,300 in 2015. Its main battle tanks dropped from 2,850 in 1991 to 1,704 in 2000 and only 926 in 2015. Combat aircraft dropped from 506 in 1991 to 267 in 2000 and then 113 in 2015.

What we need is a set of force planning goals that will ensure enough collective spending to create a truly effective level of deterrence, and guard the most exposed NATO states near the Russian border — not vacuous goals like 2 percent of GDP and 20 percent of spending on procurement.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.