The security and freedom of European nations ultimately rests upon a strong and effective NATO. The Article 5 treaty obligation ensures the common defence of all NATO nations and has so far worked in protecting the alliance. However, NATO only retains its strength if its defence capacity remains credible. Approximately 75% of defence spending amongst NATO nations is from the US and whilst the Baltic nations and Poland are increasing spending, the trend across NATO nations seems to be continued falls in defence budgets. This is in spite of the rising threat from Russia and the Wales Summit Declaration which committed NATO nations to reverse the decline and to reach the target of 2% of GDP on defence within a decade. The UK is currently one of the few nations to reach the NATO target compared to 1.5% in France and 1.1% in Germany. By contrast, Russia spends 4.2% of GDP on defence.
Given persistent Russian provocations, including the abduction of an intelligence officer on Estonian territory two days after President Obama’s speech in that country reassuring America’s support for its security, it is essential that NATO has the capacity to defend itself. If the UK is to maintain its commitment to NATO and to help ensure its credibility it should stick to the 2% of GDP target on defence spending. The target is not related to a specific scenario or set of capabilities and there is of course always the risk of wasted resources when targets are set according to inputs rather than outputs.
Also, the UK’s fiscal situation makes this task much more difficult. In order to maintain the 2% target, defence spending would need to rise by more than 2% per year in real terms which is likely to be substantially higher than other budgets such as health or education. However, a permanent failure to reach the 2% target would send the wrong message to Russia and damage the credibility of NATO at a particularly dangerous time. This is especially the case given other geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Such a perception of weakness would undoubtedly embolden Russia and, indeed, the gloating in the Russian press over concerns about UK defence spending is revealing.
Beyond the symbolic importance, ensuring adequate defence spending is also necessary to give NATO forces the resources to provide a credible defence of the Baltic nations. These three nations are entirely reliant on the Baltic Air Policing Mission which has 16 NATO fighter jets and a rapid reaction force of 4,000 troops. This is in contrast to Russia’s 1,200 strong air force. In addition, the 1997 agreement with Russia prevents the permanent deployment of foreign troops in NATO nations further east than Germany. If NATO is to remain credible, its rapid reaction forces need to be big enough and sufficiently well equipped to be an effective deterrent. However, given Russia’s continued threats, its own violations of numerous treaties and NATO’s Article 5 obligations, it is increasingly important for NATO to expand its presence in Eastern Europe.
In addition to a commitment to defence budgets, it is essential that NATO nations are prepared for Russian aggression which is aimed at falling below the threshold for an Article 5 response such as cyber attacks, hybrid warfare and covert operations. Russian-instigated unrest leading, as in Ukraine, to the occupation of buildings and the destabilisation of the Baltics must lead to a rapid and firm NATO response. Only by making clear to Putin that NATO remains a credible and determined force, will he be deterred from extending his reach. Britain's commitment to NATO is as important as ever.