NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a news conference to address the troop drawdown in Afghanistan during the May 20 NATO summit in Chicago. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)
CHICAGO — NATO leaders are expected to unveil several new multinational projects at its summit here this weekend aimed at better integrating European defense planning and capabilities.
The goal is to counter the continued decline of European defense budgets and financial contributions to NATO, a situation made worse by the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.
Europeans realize that they’re not going to have more defense resources, but they’ve got to do better with what they have, Stephen Flanagan, a defense and security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
“Our European allies are still spending an enormous amount of money on defense, but they don’t spend it very wisely and there is a lot of redundancy. For $282 billion last year, NATO Europe should be able to get a lot more out of that than it does.”
At the Chicago summit, NATO will build upon its “Smart Defense” initiative, which encourages countries to coordinate their defense planning, paying close attention to where others are making budget cuts so as not to lose certain capabilities completely.
Three flagship projects — missile defense, Baltic air policing and Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) — will be highlighted.
On missile defense, NATO is expected to announce an interim capability for a new missile defense shield. The planned purchase of five Global Hawk surveillance UAVs as part of the AGS project was announced in February.
In addition to these announcements, NATO is expected to unveil a package of more than 20 multinational projects that aim to fill capability gaps.
Whether these projects will help Europe shore up its defense capabilities remains to be seen, but observers will be watching the summit for clues.
“What I would watch is what’s the balance between rhetoric and practical projects,” said Ian Brzezinski, an Atlantic Council senior fellow who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO Policy from 2001 to 2005.
“There is a tendency in the alliance to focus on vision statements and plans that are 10 years out. They sound good, they make you feel good and you don’t have to do anything about them for several years,” Brzezinski said.
While the three big-ticket items are important, they are either long-term projects or, in the case of Baltic air policing, something NATO has been doing for some time, Brzezinski said.
“NATO publics need to see an alliance that’s credible and they’re not going to find as persuasive 10-year visions as they will practical projects that can be accomplished tomorrow,” Brzezinski said.
For this reason, he said he’d like to see greater emphasis placed on the less glamorous, but more practical projects, which include joint procurement of armored ambulances and communications equipment, the establishment of joint logistics hubs for armored personnel carriers, and joint training facilities.
While some NATO watchers would like to see more dramatic statements of commitment come out of Chicago, most expectations remain modest.
The Obama administration is hoping for few surprises, said Mark Jacobson, who served from 2009 to 2011 at the NATO International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul. “The idea is: ‘Let’s get through this and push things along.’”
Unlike the last summit in Lisbon in 2010, Chicago is not “an ideas summit,” Jacobson said.
The 2012 summit also is not about inviting new countries to join NATO, such as the 2008 summit in Bucharest.
However, while it may have started out as simply an “implementation summit,” a time for leaders to take stock of progress and chart out near-term plans, the Chicago summit is shaping into something a little more.
There is awareness that given the recent changes in the world, from the Arab Spring to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, that NATO has to take these changes into account as it considers its future, Flanagan said
Brzezinski said he viewed the summit as an important opportunity for the United States and Europe to reaffirm their commitments to each other.
He said he is troubled by what he sees as disengagement on both sides of the Atlantic: the United States looking to Asia and Europe looking inward.
“If the Europeans don’t sign on for a serious plan for sustaining their defense commitment in tight fiscal times, and if it seems as if the alliance is running for the exits in Afghanistan, then it is going to have damaging consequences for the alliance,” Flanagan said.
However, it will bode well if the basic transition timetable in Afghanistan is reaffirmed and countries make a good faith effort on Smart Defense, making it more than just a passing slogan, he said.