NATO Responsibility Sharing: Past, Present, and Future

Jordan Becker, United States Military Academy

This article considers the question of NATO responsibility-sharing from a couple of perspectives: how nations spend their defense budgets, and the impact of the 2% target on how much they spend on defense.  It then draws some conclusions about the future direction Alliance members may take going forward.

How Money is spent

A strong correlation can be demonstrated between national expenditures on defense equipment and Operations & Maintenance (O&M) support on the one hand, and the sustainability and effectiveness of military forces on the other.  Underspending on O&M in particular can undermine the effectiveness of the capabilities nations maintain, and in the worst case leave them little more than a hollow shell of limited or no operational value. 

This puts some important context around the discussions concerning the 2% of GDP spending target first formalized in 2014 at the Wales Summit.  It was viewed at the time by some member states as being just an aspirational ceiling to aim for, however, the 2023 Vilnius Summit declaration made it unequivocally a minimum floor level nations were expected to reach or exceed.  It is notable that both declarations also contained a guideline of spending at least 20% of defense budgets on the acquisition and recapitalization of major equipment, however, apart from general statements about meeting guidelines concerning deployability and sustainability of forces, no similarly specific guidance has been provided to nations on minimum levels of O&M spending. 

How much is spent

In terms of overall defense spending, it appears that the Wales Pledge guidelines have had an effect.  Prior to 2014, there were widely differing national perceptions of the threat Russia posed to member states, and these differences were reflected in each country’s level of defense spending.  However, since then many lower-spending members have been increasing their defense budgets to align with the common goal.  A main motivation for this would appear to be to be the support of collective actions as good allies rather than a greater alignment of national threat perceptions.  This is well illustrated by looking at defense spending among the Nordic Countries, which have in the past seen budgets follow roughly similar tracks in response to broadly similar perceptions of Russia.  However, as shown in the accompanying graphic, NATO members Norway and Denmark diverged substantially from non-members Sweden and Finland between 2014 and 2020.

Impact of Spending Decisions

Russia’s war against Ukraine has reinforced the fact that, while increasing overall spending is important, how those funds are spent affects a nation’s capacity to conduct and sustain operations.  It has been the NATO nations with the highest proportions of spending on O&M in their defense budgets that have proven most able to provide essential support to Ukraine.  Member states that have spent less very quickly exhausted their inventories.  The graphic below shows this relationship by plotting defense O&M spending against total Ukraine aid as percentages of GDP.

An important sub-text to this is the question of how nations can best assure adequate depth in their own capacity to sustain intensive military operations when necessary, and a couple of strategies may be possible.  Some would argue that larger stockpiles of key items like ammunition should be maintained, with substantial amounts “ring-fenced” for contingencies to ensure the most critical potential needs can be met.  An alternative view is that it is more effective to ensure adequate industrial capacity to meet requirements, including surge requirements, by using munitions in volume instead of holding large contingency stockpiles.  However, the experience in Ukraine suggests that some combination of both may be necessary to successfully prosecute a major conflict:  reasonably robust immediate-access inventories backed up by adequate industrial capacity to quickly ramp up production of high volumes of the most critical items.

Looking Ahead

So, what do these analyses indicate about responsibility sharing in NATO going forward?  First, context matters.  The Wales Pledge was optimized for the particular circumstances of the time: the semi-covert illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea.  The events of 2014 were a clear warning but not necessarily seen by all members as evidence of a present danger to NATO nations.  On the other hand, the 2023 Vilnius Pledge came in response to an open invasion that unequivocally revealed the serious nature of the threat, and the policy direction it articulated was optimized for that context.

Rahm Emanuel, when he was Chief of Staff to President-Elect Barak Obama, said “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”  The Wales and Vilnius Pledges were both manifestations of this idea – they emerged at moments during which crises caused NATO and its member states to seriously re-think the strategic environment.  The result has been increases in most allies’ defense budgets.  Concurrently, there has been an apparent shift in national attitudes within the Alliance, shifting the debate about defense spending from the idea of “burden sharing” towards the idea of “responsibility sharing” – a potentially important difference.

All that said, it is worth considering whether the current conventional view that the context has changed for NATO is, in fact, true.  Are the fundamentals any different from what they were in 2013?  Perhaps not.  The perennial question of whether regionalization of defense capabilities among European nations, or specialization between them, will provide the most effective security outcomes remains unanswered.  The fundamental trade-offs all nations face in terms of strategic risks versus the level of security they are prepared to pay to maintain may look different today, and the Russian threat may be more apparent, but has it fundamentally changed in terms of its substance?

Above all, the basic mechanics that need to be applied to planning a nation’s defense capacity and capabilities are no different today than a decade ago.  It still needs to follow the same process: Scenario planning ® Exercises ® Operational Planning ® Defense Planning ® Resource Allocation.

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