NATO’s Blind Spot: Getting to “Honest Defense”


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the West won the Cold War. And with the end of this struggle eventually came new European NATO member states — among them, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, the three Baltics States, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and some of the republics that emerged out of Yugoslavia. But how well can NATO’s “new” allies contribute to their own national defense, let alone contribute to collective defense? Relatedly, how effective have “old” NATO members been in assisting their former adversaries to create modern reliable capabilities? The United States alone has spent billions for training and modernization , as well as assisting in building modern civil ministries of defense. Yet universally, since the end of the Cold War all of NATO’s newer members continue to struggle to create, let alone sustain, reliable modern capabilities.

Instead of tackling these problems head on, Western officials have leaned on the old trope that nations need to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. The alliance declared in 2014 that those nations not meeting this goal would endeavor to do within a decade in order to meet alliance commitments and goals. This aim, wittingly or otherwise, is premised on a number of questionable assumptions, not least of which is that increased spending by newer member states will translate into new or more capabilities.

I have been intimately involved in planning, directing, and delivering advice and assistance to every country in the region (save Lithuania) for almost 20 years. The results of this experience and loads of hard thinking about the problem can be found in a book published last month. And on the basis of this experience, I am confident that more spending won’t do the job. Indeed, many important issues related to capacity, capability, readiness, and training are being overlooked by the alliance.

Unfortunately, Western officials have long lacked a full appreciation of the actual state of reform of new members’ armed forces. After all, any likely aggression by Russia would almost certainly fall on Central or Eastern Europe. It is therefore incumbent on these armed forces to be capable of responding in a coherent fashion. In reality, the reform of new NATO allies’ armed forces, and indeed their entire defense institutions, remains a work in progress. Newer member states continue to struggle to adopt the most basic Western democratic defense governance concepts. But due to a lack of commitment by governments in the region to reform and inconsistent political pressure from leading Western nations, ministries in the region plan and manage ineffectually — all the while their armed forces are literally rusting away. This can be observed in their airfields, ship docks, and vehicle parks. Worst of all, this equipment is not being modernized and/or replaced. An easy and objective example can be found in the low number of flight hours combat pilots get per annum in relation to their “old” NATO counterparts.

How did the alliance get to this point? There are a number of possible explanations. First, in making troop contributions to Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, the armed forces of these countries have avoided objective scrutiny of their actual state of reform from Washington and other leading NATO capitals. A pernicious habit has developed of Western military officials in particular offering insincere compliments on how well reform is going when such praise is not warranted. Second, early on in these states’ transition to democracy, Western officials determined that their advice and assistance would be technical and delegated its management to their armed forces. Thus, Western support has been based on a trinity of being defined as “technical,” focused at the “tactical” level, and using “training” as the preferred tool. Western officials continue to hope without evidence that they can change public institutions through technical advice while ignoring that reform is fundamentally political in nature. Due to this inattention, these armed forces have failed to modernize, maintained hollow units, and forgone essential leadership, individual, and, particularly, collective training. It is little wonder that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in the last Congress held hearings into the effectiveness of the Department of Defense’s management of security cooperation programs. Lawmakers’ skepticism of current policies is clearly expressed in the latest National Defense Authorization Act.

In light of this situation, old and new NATO members must fundamentally change their policies. The alliance needs an “honest defense” initiative. Senior Western officials need to take a harder line in their interactions with their allied counterparts on NATO’s eastern flank and start demanding painful political decisions in order to adopt Western democratic defense governance concepts. As Western and legacy concepts are antithetical to each other, the latter should be retired in order to adopt the former. Specifically, political capital will need to be spent to develop non-complex and effective defense planning methods, stop practices that preclude their armed forces from training and developing military leaders in accordance with Western practices, and radically transform their ineffectual legacy logistics organizations. Equally, newer allies and partners must insist Western officials end the corrosive practice of offering false compliments and become brutally honest with their failures and weaknesses. In essence, these officials need to demand Western officials take them seriously and deal with them on the basis of equality and honesty.

Thus, the long-standing canard, articulated particularly by U.S. officials, that members must simply increase their defense budgets is in urgent need of refinement. On its own, encouraging new members to spend more on defense in no way guarantees new funding actually will produce new and needed capabilities. An “honest defense” initiative could encourage deep reforms and provide appropriate advice and assistance to enable legacy defense institutions to prepare to contribute effective capabilities as quickly as possible. Ominously, Russian aggression against Ukraine demonstrates that weak defense capabilities all but invite Russian mischief-making. The alliance has allowed this disquieting situation to go unaddressed for some 25 years. It is doubtful the West can count on President Vladimir Putin allowing NATO another 25 years to complete the reform of these legacy defense institutions.


Thomas-Durell Young is Program Manger Europe at the Center for Civil-Military Relations of the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is the author of Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions: Mirage of Military Modernity (Bloomsbury, 2017). The views expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the policy or views of the Naval Postgraduate School, Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Image: NATO