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NATO in an Era of Smart Defense

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Written by Chrisella Sagers, Managing Editor

Coming from some of the world’s foremost military experts and global leaders, discussion of a transition to “Smart Defense” would seem to imply a criticism of the way the West has historically engaged in collective security. However, as multiple speakers took care to make clear on the first day of NATO Chicago Summit, far from a criticism, the term is meant to imply a fresh set of operational guidelines for an Cold War-era organization beset not only by a new geopolitical reality, but also by the worst economy in its lifetime.

When the Iron Curtain fell over 20 years ago, NATO declared that the Russian Federation – formerly the Soviet Union – was no longer its enemy, and the world of bi-polarity began to crumble into a multi-polar helter-skelter. Once secure states, fueled by an infusion of capitalist vs. communist foreign aid, disintegrated into dangerously unstable failed states; non-state actors found a new role in a world no longer governed by black and white; Europe rebuilt and moved into a society finally free from the threat of war.

Today, NATO is considered by some to be merely a “relic of the Cold War,” but the organization has the potential to be much more than that. Hence, the leaders of the world are working to reorient NATO to the variety of challenges that face it and any other such organization in its position. The foremost strategy falling under the Smart Defense umbrella is the NATO Ballistic Missile Defense initiative. The idea was originally agreed upon by the NATO countries at the 2010 Lisbon Summit, but it was announced on Sunday that the Interim Capability for the program was operational and on track to reach Full Capability by the end of the decade.

It is a program that has been much discussed – as well as hashed and rehashed in NATO-Russia relations since the Lisbon decision – and yet, questions are still raised about its implementation.

Structurally, the program would consist of two parts monitoring, one part information sharing, and one part intervention. Radar systems based on the land and on ships, and linked to the NATO command and control system, would detect an attack originating from any of the 30 countries outside of Europe seeking to obtain long-range ballistic missile systems; then, satellites can instantly relay information from one command center to another, providing all BMD systems real-time information. From there, interceptor systems provided by Allies would allow partner countries to take appropriate action to repel any attack against NATO members’ populations.

The program has just been launched into the Interim Capability, or “start-up” stage. Many, if not almost all, of the radar systems currently being used by Allies must be upgraded, and the systems, still in the “beta testing,” must still work out the bugs. According to a document released by NATO: “The basic command and control capability has been tested and installed. Allies have agreed [upon] the rules under which the capability will be operated. Sensor information is received, compiled and shared through the NATO command and control system. This gives NATO missile defence commanders a comprehensive and real-time operational picture, allowing them to use the available missile defence assets effectively.”

Individually, nations contribute pieces to the program to build a coherent whole. France plans to develop a space-based long-range early warning system; the Netherlands is upgrading four of its ship-based radar systems; Germany hosts the command and control structure for NATO BMD at Alliance Headquarters Air Command Ramstein.

This model of collective security, according to Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, is the best way to encourage cooperation and partnerships that allow each country to contribute where they have the resources, resulting in a more efficient and successful defense system. Smaller countries would be allowed to divert resources to other projects, while larger countries with more means can be responsible to provide cutting-edge technology, resulting in a lower cost of security for all involved. This model, he argues, is the only way NATO will be able to meet the new geopolitical challenges of today’s world while dealing with ongoing economic challenges.

Leaders were careful to explain that the BMD system is not oriented against any specific country, but rather is merely a preventative option deemed necessary in a time of shifting geopolitical realities. NATO’s Deterrence and Defence Posture Review specifically mentioned that there was no need for Russia to feel threatened by the program, and that NATO members were more than willing to work with the recalcitrant Russians to not only find a suitable compromise, but also to bring Russia under the protective missile umbrella.

Russia, however, has been skeptical. The government recently holding a conference on missile defense in Moscow in which a simulated missile attach on the United States was interrupted by the European-based BMD system. To this end, Russia believes the program will undermine its strategic stability by destroying the prospect of mutually assured destruction. However, this concept, according to Lituanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis, is truly the biggest relic of the Cold War, and NATO must work with Russia to address this.

Finally, one of the most important elements of the BMD program is the ability to ensure the protection of members’ populations over a large area of land, while still being extremely cost effective. The total cost of the program is estimated to reach 850 million Euros, or US$1 billion, over the next decade; however, when it is considered that the program costs should be split between the 28 member countries, the cost to each member comes to a little under US$4 million per year. In comparison, the cost of a single F-22 Raptor fighter jet reaches US$2 billion, and will not provide nearly the protection for even a single NATO member that the fully operational BMD would.

However, there the Euro crisis has presented a unique situation among NATO members – for the first time, a member state had to send home a key unit in the middle of an operation due to funding issues, when Italy’s government ran out of money and was forced to recall its aircraft carrier, the Giuseppe Garibaldi, from NATO’s operation in Libya. Currently, the United States is providing nearly 75 percent of NATO’s funding, spending approximately 4 percent of its total GDP on the organization, spending more than three times than the average European member. Under NATO rules, each member is required to spend 2 percent of GDP on NATO, but only six of the European partners do so.

It will be an ongoing challenge for NATO to secure the funding needed to keep its defense initiatives up and running. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen drove the point home on Sunday when he pointed out the link between economics and security – countries cannot be secure if they are broke. As defense budgets, even in the United States, face further and further cuts, it is vital that NATO find the most cost-effective, efficient means of defense possible. At the outset, it appears that the BMD program will be able to provide this, by truly bringing the “collective” back into collective security.