BRUSSELS — Defense spending has increased "significantly" among NATO allies, a meeting of defense ministers from the Western alliance was told Thursday in Brussels.
The meeting heard that, across European allies and Canada, there was a 4.3 percent real increase in defense spending, equivalent to about $12 billion.
This means that over the last three years, NATO members spent almost $46 billion more on defense.
"This is a significant increase, which means that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to burden-sharing and defense spending," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. "We are making major progress. This will be the third consecutive year of accelerating defense investment across European allies and Canada."
Ministers took stock of efforts on fairer burden-sharing over a working lunch.
The news will be seen as a direct riposte to U.S. President Donald Trump who, during his election campaign, branded NATO as "obsolete" and has repeatedly demanded that NATO allies "pay their fair share" toward the cost of Europe's defense.
However, the meeting also heard that only five of the 29 NATO allies, including the United States and the U.K. have so far met NATO's benchmark of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. This year, only Romania is expected to join them.
The meeting's attendees were told that 25 allies plan to increase defense spending in real terms this year and that, in 2018, Latvia and Lithuania will spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Ministers were told that the $46 billion will be spent on "many different things," including investing in new equipment and military exercises, but also soldiers' salaries and pensions.
The increase in defense spending, which comes after years of a decline, will also allow the alliance to invest more on air-to-air refueling and increase the number of forces and troops.
Stoltenberg conceded that more was needed to ensure "fairer burden-sharing," but added: "Allies' national plans will ensure we maintain the momentum."
The Norwegian-born official said he "welcomed" Trump's "strong focus" on defense spending, adding: "At the same time, I have strongly stressed that European allies should invest more in defense not only to please the United States but because it is in their own interests."
"Burden-sharing involves cash, capabilities and contributions, too. Here also, the trend is up. Today, allies have agreed to accept new NATO-capability targets."
Aside from funding, the meeting heard that NATO will step up its counter-cyber measures in light of this week's cyberattack, thought to have started in Ukraine.
Over three working sessions, also attended by the European Union's high representative, Federica Mogherini, as well as the ministers of Finland and Sweden, the alliance revealed plans to strengthen the cyber defense of both NATO networks and those of allies.
"One area where our cooperation has been particularly useful is cyber defense. The NATO and EU emergency cyber-response teams are now able to share information and warnings in real time. And that's exactly what they did during the global ransomware attacks earlier this week. Today, we agreed to look into ways to expand our cooperation even further, including in the fight against terrorism," Stoltenberg said.
It was also confirmed at the meeting that a cyberattack, such as those recently observed, can trigger Article 5 — NATO's mutual defense clause — of the North Atlantic treaty in the same way as a conventional military assault. It is believed the latest attack was designed to cause chaos rather than extort money. Ukrainian officials have pointed at Russia, which is fighting an undeclared war with Ukraine in the east of the country and has been blamed for previous cyberattacks on Kiev.
"The attack in May and this week just underlines the importance of strengthening our cyber defenses, and that is what we are doing," Stoltenberg said.
The defense ministers, meeting for the first time since Trump's visit to the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, also discussed the ongoing fight against terrorism, including in Afghanistan where the Taliban and the Islamic State group have reportedly been gaining ground on a daily basis.
Increased defense spending, Stoltenberg said, would also help to fund NATO's continuing activities in Afghanistan.
At a news conference after the meeting, Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, said: "NATO's efforts to fight terrorism were high on the agenda at this afternoon's working session. The alliance joined the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS last month, and we have already increased the flight time and information sharing of our AWACS surveillance aircraft supporting the coalition.
"Here at NATO headquarters, a new terrorism intelligence cell has been established, allowing us to more effectively share information and analysis on terrorist threats. Work to set up our Hub for the South is also on track. It will be a focal point for increasing our understanding of the challenges stemming from that region, and it will be fully operational by the end of the year."
He also noted that NATO's presence in the Black Sea region is developing, adding: "Earlier this week, the headquarters of our Multinational Brigade South East in Romania was activated as a NATO military body. The brigade is conducting exercises and U.K. jets are currently patrolling the region's skies."
Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.