NATO’s dilemmas can’t be solved with more money and forces

President Biden at NATO meeting
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After a month of brutal and bloody fighting in which Ukrainian citizens have been the targets of Russian bombs, rockets and artillery shells, no one knows how or when this war will end. Nor is there any consensus on that end. Still, NATO made three vital commitments at the emergency summit in Brussels last week.

First, the alliance has reinforced its unanimity in its commitment to support Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression. Second, virtually all NATO members committed to increase defense spending as a result of the Ukrainian onslaught. And third, NATO will deploy more forces to its eastern borders. 

This is an impressive show of unity. But will increasing defense spending and deploying more troops to the east actually improve NATO’s war fighting capabilities and constrain Russia’s malevolent conduct? Let’s start with the easy part.

These commitments will coalesce Russia’s attention by achieving exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin did not want: moving NATO’s forces closer to Russia. But the strategy and war fighting commitments are problematic. Why?   

First, more spending increases individual national capabilities but not necessarily NATO’s. Translating national into alliance capability has always been difficult. There is no NATO army. There are 29 national armies. (Iceland does not have one.)

Second, much of this spending will be lost to inflation, running at 8 percent in the U.S. All militaries must deal with uncontrolled real annual cost growth for every item, from people to precision weapons to pencils. In the U.S., that amounts to about 5-7 percent a year and varies from member to member. What does that mean in practical terms? 

Ironically, the more the U.S. spends on defense, the more the force shrinks. Clearly, new technology has created truly impressive but far from inexpensive weapons. One F-35 costs nearly $100 million; a Ford nuclear aircraft carrier about $15 billion — and that is without an air wing. The same trend applies to NATO.

Third, what then is needed to deal with this inverse ratio of spending and numbers? 

NATO has updated its military strategy and war fighting concept emphasizing Deterrence and Defense in the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA). In June, NATO will release its new Strategic Concept, an unusual reversal of logic. A critical question is how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will and should affect the new Strategic Concept and the military strategy and war fighting concept.

Russia was not deterred from attacking Ukraine. Will greater spending and adding more troops in NATO deter Russia from aggression against it? How Ukraine has defended itself so well – so far with fewer, less capable weapons than NATO possesses – must be closely analyzed. What might be concluded from a preliminary analysis?

NATO may not have the most appropriate match of military forces and strategy to deter and defend against possible Russia aggression beyond the threat of Article 5. NATO and Russia maintain similar types of conventional air, naval and ground forces. But are like forces the most effective and affordable means to blunt an initial attack by like forces?  

Therefore, to strengthen deterrence and defense as NATO’s strategic foundation and raise the threshold for using nuclear weapons, NATO needs to broaden its strategy. I recommend incorporating what I call a Porcupine Defense (described in my book referenced below) into its military tool kit.

A Porcupine Defense, reinforced by the Ukrainian example, would disrupt and impose such massive casualties on any initial attack to make it too costly for a would-be aggressor to consider. That outcome would raise the so-called nuclear threshold by reducing the likelihood of aggression. And NATO would still retain a substantial conventional capability. 

Porcupine would field overwhelming numbers of less expensive weapons systems to include drones, anti-surface, anti-air and anti-armor missiles; electronic, psychological and informational warfare to jam, misdirect, deceive, disrupt and intimidate the aggressor. The main targets are logistics, choke points, command and control and leadership centers to halt any attack.

About Porcupine’s cost advantages, consider this: One hundred $1 million Tomahawk missiles or 1,000 $100,000 drones or missiles can be bought for the cost of one F-35’s $100 million price tag. Superior numerical force will be brought to bear against any attack. And this form of dispersed defense is better suited for a nuclear environment.

If follow-on offensive forces were needed, NATO would retain plenty of those. And the division between conventional and Porcupine forces would be about 50/50. 

More of the same is not the right prescription. The question is whether NATO will act on this new reality.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Article 5 Biden; Joe Biden; Putin NATO Nuclear escalation Nuclear warfare Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russia–NATO relations Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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