NATO Drifts Rudderless

By Alexander Wooley

It is wrong to allow this illusion to proliferate. Defensive alliances do not work when they have anything other than military defense as their basis. It takes the stark and recent reminder of war, or the prospect of new conflagration-or both, as occurred in the case of NATO's inception through the Washington Treaty in 1949-to make the best treaties. While the political and ideological divide that existed in 1949 has been swept away, Europe is by no means unified-a concept NATO leaders seem willing to ignore in their efforts to bridge West and East.

The Two Europes

Western Europe has money, new cars, better jobs, democracy, and a free market. The East sees that, and wants it. But Western Europe has something else-something that the optimistic, hopeful East has not noticed, nor talked about in public at any rate-the recognition that NATO is on the wane. Though not receiving much coverage in North America, what really galvanizes politics and the media in Western Europe is not NATO, but the future of the European Union (EU). The European Union will have a common currency; borders will largely lapse because residents will have a common passport. EU citizens already have the freedom to work in any other member country.

With the June 1997 signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam, EU members agreed to coordinate their economic policies. The EU also was given a legal personality, permitting it to negotiate as a single entity. Not resolved at Amsterdam was the question of a unified foreign and defense policy for Europe, though this surely will come at some point in the near future. Though the notion is still beset by controversy, the year 2000 could see the full integration of the military Western European Union with the European Union, and a single foreign-policy voice for the entire EU.

Most NATO member states in Europe are also EU members, with the exception of Norway and Turkey. The frontrunners from the East for EU membership are the same cast of characters joining NATO: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. While NATO drifts rudderless, the EU is evolving, though certainly not without frequent and public growing pains. The question is: Will European states who belong to both attach an increasing loyalty to the EU at the expense of NATO?

Who are NATO's new members? In general, they are nations that do not speak English. They do not use NATO equipment. They are poor-though not as poor as Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. According to one report, if all ten EU applicants from central and Eastern Europe were admitted, the EU's population would increase by 30%, but its GDP would grow by only 4%. NATO admits that existing NATO states will have to spend between $30 billion and $100 billion dollars to get Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into shape militarily. Since 1990, NATO countries have faced massive reductions in defense spending. Where will this new money come from? Will this figure come from already-tight defense budgets, international aid, or favorable loans tied to military equipment buybacks? There cannot be a clearer sign that what is really driving NATO expansion is political rather than military concerns.

The central and eastern states will join an alliance still reevaluating its mission statement. Having more members will not help-it will only weaken cohesiveness and act as a destabilizing force. With a reduced threat from the east, and a weakened Russia, NATO has no business being so big if its only mission is European defense. That mission can be handled adequately by European states themselves, the majority of which already belong to the EU, an organization that increasingly looks after every other aspect of their public life. Even if European countries really do not like each other much, they are irreversibly on the road to some form of political and economic union.

NATO dissolution is one option. Free from NATO, Europe would be responsible for its own collective security. Table 1 shows that the EU as a maritime power would rank second in the world only to the United States.

The second option is less severe, but calls for formal definition of NATO's "new and expanded" roles, missions, and spheres of operations. NATO is the only homogenous, multinational, well-equipped, and well-trained force in the world. Should it also be a world police force, used in limited situations where goals can be achieved? If all this can be established, then there might be a role for NATO-but not without some reorganization. Using a corporate metaphor, NATO should become the holding company, overseeing two specialized subsidiary divisions.

Option 1: The Breakup of NATO

NATO's demise would involve a massive withdrawal of funding and of military, political, and moral strength from Europe with the departure of the United States, and would cause the creation of essentially "continental" blocs of power. The figures in Table 1 illustrate that for the last 50 years, continental European nations have been content to build uni-dimensional fleets composed of general-purpose escorts virtually bereft of at-sea air support, and backed by a limited replenishment fleet. There are large numbers of conventional submarines and mine countermeasure vessels, which are useful-but slow and of limited endurance, and they present little in the way of deterrence or projection. Carrier and amphibious strength are negligible-though this is not a concern if the only potential conflict is on European soil, within range of land-based air support and ground forces. The European Union Navy (EUN) is a fleet with a limited operating radius, equipped to engage an enemy in an even tighter radius. But the EUN at sea away from Europe would be a vulnerable force. Since World War II, Europe's navies have slipped so much in strength, capability to project power, and technical superiority, that now they are not much superior to the fleets of developing nations such as India.

The superiority of the U.S. Navy is even more telling than the numbers show. No other superpower has such a diverse and capable multi-missioned array of fixed-wing aircraft. No other fleet has the technological superiority of the U.S. Navy's stand-off weapons, tied to superior C4I. No other navy can boast the USS Wasp (LHD-I)- or even USS Tarawa (LHA-1)-class ships-bigger and more capable than any European rival's aircraft carrier. While the EUN has a fair number of service vessels, there is nothing even close in size or capability to the Supply (AOE-6)-class fast combat support ship, or the new 62,000ton (fully loaded) Bob Hope (T-AKR-300)-class of fast sealift ship. As previously noted, the United States is the only NATO state with sufficient sealift and airlift to stage a medium-sized out-of-area operation. If the United States doesn't give everyone a lift to the party, the party's off.

Although U.S. Navy ships are large and have been increasing reach in weapons and sensors, platform numbers have been decreasing. There is no reason the United States should provide so much of the heavy support, firepower, and investment to an increasingly land-based defensive alliance that stretches from Lisbon to near Latvia.

Option 2: A Two-Division NATO—NATO West and NATO East

Splitting NATO into divisions would allow each division to take advantage of the geography, capital equipment, training, and mentality that already exist. One division would be NATO West-the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. The two non-European members of NATO are the United States and Canada. Great Britain is the third non-Euro state, a country drawn by ties of shared language, traditions, government, and culture toward the New World as much as the Old. These three states are in a sense the islands of NATO, whose economies are committed to overseas trade. Practical and historic proponents of sea power, the trio would form NATO West-the blue-water forward-deployed arm of NATO. The reasons are simple.

Having two divisions of NATO would capitalize on the current set-up. Subtracting France, a nonmilitary participant in the alliance, leaves the United States and Great Britain as the sole operators of the twinned tines of deployed maritime power and deterrence-aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines. The United States and Great Britain have been the innovators and are the most proficient users of carrier aviation. As well, the Royal Navy (RN) and the Canadian Navy have and continue to make the most of ship-borne helicopters. In sheer numbers, the RN operates the equivalent of one-third of all the naval helicopters in use by NATO's European member states.

Further, the United States and Britain are the most expert practitioners of amphibious assault, and each has a professional, seasoned corps of marines to implement operations. While short on resources compared to the United States, Great Britain has rededicated itself to amphibious assault, recently having taken up two 30,000-ton vessels for fast sealift in support of its Joint Rapid Deployment Force. Great Britain also is planning the replacement of its two LPDs; and soon will commission a 20,000-ton LPH, HMS Ocean.

Finally, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy successively have exercised maritime superiority worldwide for more than 200 years. More than any other nations, they understand the diplomatic, international presence, and crisis uses of navies, especially as instruments of forestalling war. NATO West has already performed its first mission: Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were led by NATO West navies operating well out of area.

For the global policing mission of a redefined NATO, navies need oceangoing ships formed into largely self-supporting task forces. This is especially true considering the loss of bases in out-of-area regions, for example, Subic Bay for the U.S. Navy and Hong Kong for the Royal Navy. It is also why it is so important for the United States to continue to exercise command of the Naples-based and essentially maritime Southern Command.

NATO either must evolve or cease to exist. If it evolves, it must evolve toward the global force for the values for which its leaders claim it stands. NATO West nations are best positioned to perform this mission.

Do not look to the new members for help. With just a handful of useful seagoing units-a Kashin-class frigate and a Kilo-class submarine from Poland being the only exceptions among a motley collection of coastal- and river patrol vessels-the new Eastern members will make virtually no contribution to NATO's maritime position. At a time when NATO is moving to the use of sophisticated and stand-off technology to support forward presence, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic nearly are devoid of modern warfighting equipment.

The soon-to-be-accepted members to NATO East-continental Europe-do have two strengths-grunts and armor. Poland alone has the same number of main battle tanks as does the U.S. Army in Europe (although they are of lesser quality). This suits the mission of NATO East: defending continental Europe and providing heavy ground support overseas for NATO West should the latter encounter a particularly intractable opponent. The accession of large-scale ground forces with supporting elements would allow the United States to withdraw some forces from Europe and reallocate resources to the expeditionary role of NATO West.

NATO East would be anchored by the central axis of nations running through its geographic center; the new members would provide an extension to that axis. NATO East navies would have enough strength at sea to deal with most threats that might materialize on the continent, and its concentration in surface escorts could be called upon if the organization needed to resurrect its transatlantic resupply mission.

Under this arrangement, NATO West states would have a less-engaged ground presence in Europe. Security in the extreme east should be provided by Poland and Germany. It makes sense. To touchy, volatile eastern states such as Belarus and Russia, which would be on NATO's eastern border, the presence of U.S. ground troops or aircraft in numbers in eastern Europe would be a cause for internal rancor, especially in the hands of domestic political provocateurs, and would serve as a bargaining chip to be used against NATO and the United States at the negotiating table.


For the $30 to $100 billion that miraculously will appear to modernize new members' equipment, existing states could have purchased capital equipment, improved training, shored up personnel and platform numbers that have fallen dangerously low, and even perhaps had a few hundred million dollars left over for the forgotten art of antisubmarine warfare. Instead, NATO has invited three states whose military contribution to the alliance will be negligible without a massive influx of financial help, and who bring increased proximity to potentially unstable states who already feel left out of the post-Cold War feel-good aura that has enveloped their neighbors.

Without clear goals, corporations fall when they diversify too much. Today, NATO faces just such a proposition. Should the successful organization pick up some real estate at an apparently low price? The question remains: Is that NATO's business?

Mr. Wooley is a manager of media relations and communication at a Canadian University and is a former officer in the Royal Navy. He is a graduate of Carelton University and Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.


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