NORFOLK, Va. — The NATO Military Committee is the body that advises the alliance on military policy and strategy. Since June 2018, Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach has led that committee, advancing the NATO mantra of collective defense while balancing distinct threats of a more capable Russia, a more belligerent Iran and omnipresent terrorist activities.
Peach sat down with Defense News during his visit to NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia.
It’s been 70 years since NATO was stood up. How would you put into words the relevance of NATO today?
This interview takes place in Norfolk, Virginia. It’s an incredibly important home for the United States military. [March 12] we take the Military Committee of the most successful alliance onto the USS Harry S. Truman, which of course is serendipity because he was the president who took the United States into the alliance in 1949. There’s a strong link. We’re sitting here today in NATO’s strategic command for transformation, NATO’s warfare development command. The Military Committee can trace its history directly through seven decades. That depth of time, that length of time, has been a remarkable achievement.
Of course, we keep almost 1 billion people safe and secure through provision of collective defense, and we conduct operations at the support of sovereign governments around the world. We provide deterrence through regular operations as well as, of course, defense capability at now 29 nations, which has grown a long way from the 12 nations who signed the Washington Treaty in 1949. A treaty, which, in short, [is] incredibly well-written and is highly relevant today.
The threat has evolved, obviously in the last 70 years. Provide me your perspective in terms of priorities today.
Collective defense was born out of the confrontation of the Soviet Union that followed with the Second World War, and that sense of concern was sufficient for 12 nations to come together in Washington, D.C., 70 years ago to sign that very well-written treaty.
You’re right, that threat has evolved. The Soviet Union is no longer with us, but NATO still has a role to provide collective security for those 1 billion people, now at 29 nations. Also, on the 12th of March, we celebrate 20 years of Poland, Czech and Hungarian membership of the alliance. This evolution of our alliance to provide collective defense, to provide security, to provide defense where it’s needed is really a response to the changing threats — whether they are in response to terrorist events, which led to NATO’s deployment in Afghanistan, or, prior to that, NATOs response at the request of the United Nations at the Balkans. We continue to this day to provide defense and deterrence where it’s needed in support of those citizens we try and keep safe.
Obviously Russia has emerged as a notable threat, particularly in eastern Europe. Can you speak to how you approach a threat like Russia that has evolved its approach for warfare and has proven quite capable?
Well, from the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2013 and of course the conflict that’s still going on, the cease-fire violations almost everyday in eastern Ukraine — Russia demonstrates that she’s prepared to use force. We are in a competition with Russia. She also demonstrates she’s prepared to use media and information. It’s very important that we in that sense of competition with an adversary, we demonstrate three things: that we’re serious about deterrence, that we’re prepared to defend, but that we also wish to continue dialogue, including military authorities as well as the NATO-Russia Council. That’s the way in which we respond to the provocations and the competition that’s been launched upon us.
Do you get enough of a response from Russia, Russian leadership and military leadership to feel that progress is being made?
We have regular meetings with the NATO-Russia Council, we have regular meetings at senior levels when we need to. We continue with that dialogue, which is important to the alliance.
We recently interviewed the Portuguese defense minister, where he expressed a bit of frustration in terms of the NATO priority of Russia. To his point, nations in that area of the world face different threats. How do you balance the priorities in terms of investment but also in terms of strategy?
Of course a large and successful alliance such as NATO will always have a sense of prioritization. In the case of Russia, Russian military modernization is very real at sea, in the air, on the land, and we have seen that ability to deploy and then employ force in Syria and elsewhere. Therefore, we must take that seriously. As part of our role to deliver collective security, that includes patrolling the air, patrolling the seas, and all the activities that NATO [participates].
You recently visited Turkey. How do you manage that relationship with Turkey and advise, for lack of a better word, on interacting with Russia? How do you ensure that it doesn’t cross lines that could jeopardize the efforts of NATO?
Turkey’s a very strong and very dependable ally. The recent Military Committee visit to Turkey made that clear, that the solidarity of NATO at 29 is vital, and that unity is our great strength. Turkey makes a very significant contribution to NATO. Turkey also makes a contribution through [airborne warning and control system aircraft] and other forms of NATO capability, and of course allies offer support in return. Right at the heart of your question is the geography of the Black Sea region, and of course Turkey sits, as she always has, at that crossroads between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Turkey’s strength and dependability is vital to the alliance’s solidarity and unity.
Do you share in concerns over the S-400 acquisition that Turkey seems to be continuing to aspire toward?
Acquisition is a national business. It’s not for NATO to choose or advise allies on weapons systems.
Is there any dialogue with Turkey in terms of a preferred approach?
It's not NATO’s business.
Another area of priority is the Baltic Sea, also critical amid the friction between NATO and Russia. Can you speak specifically to that area of the world and how NATO is approaching security in that region?
Well, NATO has proper and vital interest in a number of seas; the Baltic Sea is one. I’ve already mentioned the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In the Baltic Sea we need to ensure safe passage in accordance with international norms. We need to ensure that where necessary all the norms of both, air, space and water are respected.
There have been reports that the Trump administration would like to extract money from European allies, most notably Germany, but there are similar conversations underway with Poland to support U.S. troops stationed there. Do you have any thoughts from a NATO perspective in terms of that request?
That's a story in the media, that's a speculation. I'm not here to comment on media speculation.
In terms of the 2 percent goal that all nations within NATO aspire toward, do you feel progress has been made? As the individual who leads military strategy, is this enabling the allies to harness capabilities and invest to better position themselves for current conflicts?
This is a remarkable achievement. Since the summit in Wales in 2014, the cuts have been stopped, reversed, and so far allies have spent more than $41 billion extra on defense. We’re confident that by 2020 that figure will reach almost $100 billion. Burden-sharing is improving. Within that, the second half of your question, there’s an element of capabilities — so that up to 20 percent of defense spending is on capability. Again, many nations are reaching and achieving that target. We have changed the dynamic in the alliance in recent years as a result of strong political leadership both from the secretary general and of course from our allies.
Germany has said, without much criticism, that it will reach only reach 1.5 percent of gross domestic product for defense spending by 2024. Is that good enough?
Two percent is the target, and I’m not here to comment on individual allies. Two percent is the NATO goal, which has been set out clearly for many years.
Can you speak about new NATO programs and activities to improve military mobility across Europe? That’s always been a priority.
Well, military mobility is a phrase that’s in use actually, [but] the ability of the alliance to deploy, to move, to reinforce is 70 years old. It’s the same across the decades. A focus on military mobility is welcome. This also gives us an opportunity to enhance one of our important strategic partnerships, which is with the European Union, and we work very closely. I work very closely with the chairman of the European Union Military Committee. We work very closely between the two military authorities on making sure that both European Union activity and NATO activity is harmonized to common standards so that we can deploy and, if necessary, employ across the continent of Europe.
It’s interesting because the EU has stepped up quite a bit in the last few years in terms of its investments in military efforts. Is that helpful for NATO? Can you expand upon what you’re saying in terms of the coordination to ensure there’s no conflict in terms of investments and priorities?
Well, all allies including the United States have a single set of forces. Our position is very clear. We cooperate with the Europe Union as a strategic partner, but we don’t want to see a competition. Cooperation is our goal, and we’re achieving that goal. We don’t want this to descend instead into a competition between competing centers. I do emphasize how closely we work with the European Union military staff in Brussels, and we have regular meetings with them.
Do you have any comment in terms of the state of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and what that means from a NATO perspective for deterrence?
As I’ve made clear throughout this interview, deterrence is an absolute priority for the alliance. All allies showing solidarity and unity have been clear. Russia is in violation of that treaty. Supporting the United States, we’ve taken the appropriate steps.