NATO’s ability to defend member nations against aggression by a conventional enemy force may be atrophying, Norway’s Defense Minister said Jan. 13.
“Article 5 is not in such a good shape,” said Espen Barth Eide, speaking before an audience assembled at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I’m not talking about political will, but the actual ability to deliver if something happens in the trans-Atlantic theater of a more classical type of aggression.”
Exercises have shown that NATO’s ability to conduct conventional military operations has markedly declined, Barth Eide said.
Not only is NATO’s ability to defend its member states questionable, it might actually deteriorate further as financial pressures in Europe and the U.S. force cuts in military spending.
“I think we’re getting worse at it because of the many cuts happening in a lot of European countries,” the minister said. “If we’re not smart, [defense cuts] may lead to a further weakening of the core ability to defend ourselves.”
If NATO’s core ability to defend itself is weakened, the alliance’s ability to conduct out-of-area operations like Afghanistan will also wither away, Barth Eide said.
NATO has to strongly reassert Article 5 of the treaty and the decline of conventional capabilities has to stop, he said. The focus needs to shift away from large armies conducting stability operations to the air and sea, he added.
Norway, however, is bucking the trend with a growing defense budget and modernization programs that have seen the oil-rich northern European power purchase Aegis combat system-equipped warships, new intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems, and eventually new Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters.
“We’re purchasing the F-35,” Barth Eide said. “Hopefully, we’ll get it.”
Norway made a “complex set of simulations” which showed that while conventional non-stealthy aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, and next generation Saab Gripen are perfectly adequate for wars like Afghanistan where there is a permissive threat environment, only the F-35 was suitable to fight a high-end adversary. Barth Eide, without mentioning a country by name, said that such a high-end threat existed in Norway’s vicinity.
“There was only one aircraft that would do,” he said.
Norway has made a “decision in principle” to buy four initial aircraft, and plans a fleet of 48.
Barth Eide said that while such a conflict may not be likely, it is still theoretically possible, and as such, Norway needs to invest in weapons that could fight a sophisticated foe.
Norway advocates the concept of “smart defense”, Barth Eide said. Under the concept, nations would pool their resources to become a larger buyer. But the idea is not new; Barth Eide cited the Europeans’ F-16 fleet where Norway, Portugal, Denmark, Netherlands, and Belgium cooperate on logistics, upgrades and training together extensively.
The shared experience showed its worth over Libya, Barth Eide said, where it was apparent which allies regularly trained together. However, he said he was not optimistic that “smart defense” could be achieved in the near term.
However, the F-35 program offers the potential for a similar arrangement to be created amongst the European operators of the new stealth fighter, he said. Meetings are taking place among those would-be European F-35 nations, Barth Eide said. The problem, however, is that each nation has its own decision cycles which are not in synch with each other.