As the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization approaches on April 4th, Belgium’s Royal Higher Institute of Defense has published an article which will bring little cheer to staff at the luxurious NATO headquarters situated on the outskirts of Brussels, 15 kilometers away from my home office downtown.
The birthday present in question is entitled “NATO and American technological superiority: a risk for Euro-Atlantic solidarity,” e-Note 26, 18 March 2019. Coming from the pen of an associate of the Institute, Alain De Neve, this article in French has been researched and set out with high professionalism. It merits wide circulation in the English-speaking world which I alone cannot assure, but let us start the ball rolling here and now.
In this brief essay, I will summarize the reasoning of the author. Why this is worth your reading time comes down to the two main points which follow from what he is saying:
- That ‘America First’ is not a policy that began with Donald Trump’s inauguration in office. It was long the underlying principle of US military and foreign policy, only it was generally concealed under the ideological coating of Liberalism within the political dimension of the Alliance that was puffed up in the 1990s to justify its role as provider of stability to the swathe of Central Europe of the former Warsaw Pact countries. NATO was first and foremost the platform for shared values of democracy and rule of law.
Trump, as we know, has no patience either with the values jargon, or with the soft power, political dimension of multilateral institutions like NATO, preferring to stick to the military and Realpolitik side of things. And so America’s naked and selfish pursuit of its interests, always present in the past, is now laid bare.
America First has been the guiding hand in the new military doctrine for the United States called the Third Offset Strategy which Barack Obama authorized in 2014. De facto it dispensed with the need for America to have allies, their being only encumbrances for reasons we shall see momentarily.
- That the spending gap, the inability and/or unwillingness of America’s European allies to reach the minimum spend of 2% of GDP on NATO is not the real issue separating the two sides of the Atlantic. The shortfall in European spending on defense was the stick used by the Obama administration to bully Europe. It has served the same purpose under President Trump. But it is only a diversion from the real shortfall of the Allies, and an insignificant one at that.
The real gap is a technological gap which the United States has opened up and continues to widen at present, leaving the Europeans to understand that they all are nothing more than a “fifth wheel” militarily, or, at best, a tool kit to be used to pick up additional competences in variable geography alliances to confront challenges that the United States defines unilaterally and without consultation.
This is so, because the cutting edge technologies which the United States is developing for its war machine are so far ahead of anything Europe has or will have that the underlying military principle of the Alliance these past 70 years, interoperability of the forces from the various national entities, is no longer feasible across the board.
* * * *
What is the ‘Third Offset Strategy’ that Alain De Neve says has left the European allies in the dust? It is the latest overarching concept of the United States for ‘offsetting’ the perceived threats from those it has identified as its principal adversary or adversaries.
The first ‘offset’ strategy dates back to the 1960s and ‘70s when the United States and its NATO allies confronted the Warsaw Pact which had numerical superiority in terms of men under arms, tanks and other materiel for conventional warfare. The United States then developed a nuclear arsenal for deployment in Europe that one might otherwise call an equalizer.
The second great strategy came in the 1980s and ‘90s with the advent of smart munitions, precision guided missiles and cruise missiles. This was given the name “Revolution in Military Affairs” and had as its salient features to establish domination wherever and whenever necessary, to shore up American global hegemony.
The United States would clear the skies of its prey, followed by the destruction of any opponent’s air defenses and then of all his military and logistical infrastructure. When this “Revolution” was implemented in the First Gulf War in 1991, the shock and awe effect was as pronounced among the NATO allies as it was among the Iraqis.
Then came the aerial bombardment of Serbia in the Kosovo war of 1999. At this point the inability of European armed forces to deploy effective forces in remote war theaters became obvious. Europe planned to meet this shortcoming. It took steps to transform its armed forces to the doctrinal and technological standards of the US. However, the operational constraints linked to the contingencies in Afghanistan and Iraq (2003) remained. The technologies resulting from the Revolution in Military Affairs generated new frictions in carrying out operations that were not anticipated well.
De Neve tells us that the “Third Offset Strategy” approved in 2014 was conceived to counter what the US has now identified as its new main adversaries, ‘resurgent Russia’ and ‘emerging China’. Both have installed access denial systems to frustrate US airpower. Both are powerhouses of military technology. Both have military capabilities that outmatch anything Europe has on its own.
The “Third Offset Strategy” entails creation of overwhelming US technological superiority across a broad spectrum of innovative and mutually enhancing weapons systems that are generations ahead of anything Europe has. These systems should revise the global military balance.
Here is how De Neve sums up the program:
“The objective is to distance itself from any international actor, whether friend or enemy or partner on the technological plane in numerous sectors of innovation, including robotics, laser weapons, drone systems, hypersonic and hypervelocity arms, nanotechnologies, 3-D printing, biotechnologies and artificial intelligence. Put in other terms, the ambition expressed by the USA is not only to maintain technological military superiority but to succeed in ensuring unchallenged supremacy of all the critical domains of modern and future warfare.”
In the meantime, the NATO states have experienced a tangible erosion of their own capabilities in Research and Development in the defense sphere. There are many reasons for this. The first is the lower rate of growth of the defense budgets of the European allies while the rest of the world is seeing geometric growth. A second reason comes from the combined civil and commercial nature of most of the innovations which interest defense planners. Finally, a third element is that the innovation is now more costly and happens much faster.
The US is investing in large scale programs favoring technologies that not only safeguard military personnel but keep their options open in all sorts of crisis configurations. One of the breakthrough technologies is naval sleeper forces ready to be reactivated if needed in a crisis. They can launch their ballistic missiles and drones. They can be kept well hidden until needed. They can strike quickly against the Anti-Access/Area Denial of the adversary. Then there are robotics for crisis deployment. These systems have very brief alert times that are contrary to the notion of consultation with allies and partners. And contrary to an alliance with a geographic specificity, the US wants to be able to prioritize many theaters of action simultaneously.
The Europeans cannot yet figure out the strategic objectives they would like to attain. When they tried to put forward a Global Strategy in 2016, the US responded negatively.
“A big problem is at the operational level. There is too big a gap. As one US Rear Admiral remarked back in 1998, if a friend or ally is operating without the specific tactical communications link, they get in the way and may be shot down by friendly fire.”
Today that remark is very relevant to the deployment of newest American warplane, the F-35, which has its own communications system, the latest generation Multifunctional Advanced Data Link (MADL). By equipping the F-35 with the MADL, the USA sent a clear message to all nations which would want to continue operations in coalition with the USA but hesitate to opt for the F-35 to replace their combat aircraft.”
Europe’s latest answer to the Third Offset Strategy came in 2017 with the creation of a European Defense Fund. It comprises an R&D budget for collaborative work on innovative technologies and products for defense: advanced electronics, encrypted software and robotics. The second element is development and procurement. However, the European Defense Fund is not really a broad response to the Third Offset Strategy.
“There is the tendency of the USA now to set as the entrance ticket for coalitions on one or another defense mission ownership of specific weapons systems.”
Thus, by choice, the United States is itself directly undermining the otherwise still weak and failing European defense industry and giving itself a major argument for Europe’s being just a ‘fifth wheel.’
* * * *
The old joke about NATO is that it was devised to keep the United States in Europe, to keep the Germans down and to keep the Soviets out. One might say that little has changed over 70 years. Only for “Germans” read today “the Europeans” and for “Soviets,” read “the Russians.” However, even old jokes do die. In effect, the centrality of the European theater in any possible future war has changed.
We are in the age of Great Power politics, when there are only three Sovereign States in the world capable of conducting independent foreign and military policies, namely the United States, Russia and China.
On their own, and even in combination with the United States, the European member states of NATO count for nothing. It is interesting to see that here in Belgium at the very heart of the NATO organization that reality is now spoken about in public by professionals who know the score.
And so, if the political dimension of NATO has been scrapped by the US administration, if the military dimension is compromised by an unbridgeable technological gap and loss of interoperability, then what is left of NATO at age 70 besides the name and a billion dollar plus headquarters building near the Brussels airport?