NATO’s Pointless Burden Sharing Debates: The Need to Replace a Mathematically Ridiculous 2% of GDP Goal with Real Force Planning

By Anthony H. Cordesman
Photo: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images
February 21, 2019

NATO has started 2019 with yet another round of growing divisions between the U.S. and Europe over what are meaningless arguments about burdening sharing. It is time to put an end to one of the most pointlessly divisive debates in NATO's history, and focus on what is really needed to deter Russia and deal effectively with the key threat to Western security. The United States and its European allies have fixated on one of the most meaningless and truly stupid strategic debates in modern history: the extent to which given NATO countries spend 2% of their GDP on defense by 2024.

NATO needs to scrap this goal, and the equally meaningless goal of spending 20% of its defense budgets on equipment, and focus on developing an effective strategy to deter Russia, and national force plans that will implement this strategy, create more effective forces, and reinforce its deterrence and defense capabilities in all the areas now under pressure from Russia.

It needs to fully examine how to better use defense spending levels that already vastly exceed those of Russia, and focus on how to best adjust the radically different levels of national effort to make each country's forces more effective, rather than set some fixed spending goal for every country. Instead of dividing, it needs to recognize that that NATO Europe alone is already spending far more than Russia, and that the real challenge is for NATO to use it resources as wisely as possible rather than simply call for more spending.

The Burke chair at CSIS has prepared a summary analysis of the problems in NATO’s current force goals, the extent to which the present 2% of GDP goal is a meaningless goal for meeting the challenges post by Russia, the gross difference in current levels of spending by NATO country, and the extent to which current NATO (and NATO European) defense spending vastly exceeds that of Russia. It is supported with charts and tables showing the latest data provided by NATO.

The analysis is entitled NATO’s Pointless Burden Sharing Debates: The Need to Replace a Mathematically Ridiculous 2% of GDP Goal with Real Force Planning . It is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/190221_NATO_Burden_Sharing_Commentary.pdf.

The analysis makes it all too clear that NATO's current goals of 2% of GDP, and 20% of military spending equipment by 2024 – and the U.S. versus European burdensharing debate over the levels of effort involved – border on the theater of the absurd. The 2% goal in 2014 cannot correct for years of grossly different levels of effort from country to country. Even more significantly, it does not address the key problems caused by the lack of a detailed strategy and set of force plans that can make county-by-country efforts more effective.

The analysis shows that if one uses U.S. intelligence data on Russian military spending levels, NATO as whole spends 15.5 times more on military forces than Russia, and NATO Europe alone spends 4.0 times as much. Moreover, even if one adds all of the Belarus defense budget for 2017 to the Russian total, it would only add $1.03 billion. While estimates of Russian spending do differ from source to source, three major open sources indicate that NATO – and NATO European alone – have the potential to buy far more capable forces than Russia if they can coordinate properly, develop an effective national strategy, and reduce the impact of pursuing so many different national approaches to force development.

If Putin's Russia were not a serious potential threat, and the sheer pointlessness of the current burden sharing debate over these hollow goals was not so divisive, this might not matter. Having some 30 countries argue over spending 2% of their GDP in 30 different ways – with no real common goals in their strategic and force building plans – would continue to waste a great deal of money but it would not threaten the West's security.

Putin has made it all too clear, however, that he will continue to put pressure on Europe, build up Russia's nuclear forces, and present political threats in areas like cyber and information warfare as well. More than that, most recent round of pointless burden sharing arguments has reached the point where it threatens the very life of the NATO alliance.

NATO needs to react and react effectively. This, however, cannot be done simply by taking low cost and short-term steps – important as these are. It requires a clear set of strategic goals tailored to the different needs of the Northern Flank, Baltic, Central Region, Southern Europe, and NATO's Southern Flank. It requires nation-by-nation force plans base on what member countries actually can and cannot do over a period of years, and it require the countries in the rear to be able to provide rapid and effective reinforcement. It also means that NATO countries addressing key new needs like integrated air-missile defense, cyberwarfare, and asymmetric political warfare, as well reexamine nuclear deterrence and out of area requirements.

In the process, nations should be judged by how they meet the need for common defense, and not some arbitrary spending goal. Politics are politics, but this does not mean that politics should be a source of paralysis. NATO has successfully addressed such issues in the past. It carried out a coordinated NATO Force Planning exercise in the 1960s. It dealt with the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 by deploying the GLCM and Pershing II. It managed to link force planning and arms control in agreeing on the CFE and INF Treaties.

This is the kind of force planning effort it needs today, not a debate over meaningless criteria for "burdensharing." NATO needs collective and serious military planning linked to clear political goals that both enhance deterrence and offer Russia real incentives to move back towards stability and away from challenge and confrontation. Put bluntly, NATO’s present level of incompetence is at least dangerous as appeasement was in very different era.

For a more detailed assessment of the problems in individual NATO country forces and force plans see Anthony H. Cordesman, NATO “Burden Sharing”: The Need for Strategy and Force Plans, Not Meaningless Percentage Goals . August 16, 2018, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180816_NATO_Burden_Sharing_0.pdf.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.