The Obama administration’s proposal to increase deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles and troops in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, would ensure that a full combat brigade, roughly 5,000 troops, could be maintained to deter Russian aggression in the region. The price tag for Congress to consider: $3.4 billion in 2017 — four times its spending in 2016.
But more than anything, the proposal — which a senior U.S. official called a “longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe” — is a potent reminder that NATO remains behind the curve in rethinking its security policy and crafting a sustainable response to the evolving threat posed by Russia.
President Obama announced his initial response to Russian aggression in Ukraine in Warsaw in June 2014 — a $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” spread out over two years that involved more exercises, training and naval deployments within NATO and the plan to build partner capacity with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Since then, analysts have rightly said the effort would require substantially more resources from Washington and its allies.
The good news is that last week’s plan finally promises at least some additional funding.
The bad news is that the administration has chosen to pay for this latest installment in NATO security in the form of a one-time request from an off-budget, war-fighting account meant for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
In short: It has been done in a way that avoids having to make difficult trade-offs in the Pentagon budget, and that may prove unsustainable beyond 2017. As such, the scheme simply kicks the can down the road, misleading allies on the permanency of our commitment to bolster NATO defenses and of the American taxpayer’s willingness to foot the bill.
Given the severity of the tear in the fabric of European security, and the strong possibility that Vladimir Putin will remain president of Russia for another eight years, a truly long-term response must come to grips with the fact the U.S. has to commit to reassurance plans beyond 2017.
NATO has a robust nuclear deterrent and does not need to invest in tactical nuclear weapons.
So where will we find the resources? One place to start is for Washington and its NATO allies to reduce the staggering costs associated with a planned modernization of the U.S. B61 nuclear bomb now stored in European bunkers and associated NATO Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA); to decisively alter the nuclear component of NATO’s defense posture; and to use thee savings to strengthen our European defenses over at least the next ﬁve years.
Specifically, there are three steps for NATO to take. Firstly, the Alliance should restate that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance — making it clear NATO is not renouncing its commitment to deter a Russian nuclear strike, no matter how unlikely.
Secondly, it should commit to restructuring NATO’s nuclear deterrent so that it is more credible, safe, and affordable. This includes maintaining the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance now provided by the U.S., U.K. and France, along with a more visible demonstration of the security guarantee provided by these forces to European allies (e.g., visits of U.S. long-range nuclear-capable bombers to European airbases); enhancing information sharing, consultations and planning; consolidating U.S. tactical nuclear weapons dispersed across bases in Europe, and scaling back the U.S. B61 modernization program and associated DCA modernization.
Thirdly, NATO should commit to devoting a substantial portion of savings from restructuring its nuclear deterrent to sustaining and expanding the Obama administration’s initiative to reassure NATO’s allies by improving its conventional bases over the next ﬁve years.
This would include contributions from both the U.S. and European allies, and could provide an additional $1.5 billion to $3 billion per year for investments that reconfirm NATO nations’ commitment to defend one another — roughly equal to the proposed Pentagon budget increase in 2017.
It’s a reasonable ﬁgure in light of estimated savings from scaling back the B61 modernization (perhaps as much as $8 billion), plans to make the F-35 nuclear-capable, and commitments by a number of allies to increase their defense spending.
So what has to happen for Washington and NATO to move down this road against Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow’s nuclear saber rattling in Europe?
In 2010 and 2012, NATO committed to reducing the role of nuclear weapons. But NATO members failed to develop a clear strategy that assesses the costs and beneﬁts of either maintaining the status quo or implementing changes that reflect the need to constrain spending while strengthening security.
With the United States, Britain and France, NATO has a robust nuclear deterrent.
At the NATO summit in Warsaw this summer, President Obama and other NATO leaders need to ensure that options for changing the nuclear status quo remain available.
It is equally important for NATO leaders to stop acting on the dangerous idea that mirror imaging Russian actions, in particular in the case of nuclear weapons, equates to sound security policy.
Yes, Russia has retained and is now modernizing its inventory of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. But with the United States, Britain and France, it is also true that NATO has a robust nuclear deterrent and does not need to invest in tactical nuclear weapons.
In fact, NATO has a range of other defense priorities, including terrorism, migration, and cybersecurity, that will demand greater attention and effort in the years ahead.
That’s a message that NATO countries need to hear — and, for their own security, the sooner the better.