NATO needs update to face 21st-century threats

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
NATO has about 3.3 million active duty troops and another 2.1 million in reserve; Russia about 900,000 and 2 million reserves. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
NATO has about 3.3 million active duty troops and another 2.1 million in reserve; Russia about 900,000 and 2 million reserves. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

May 19 (UPI) -- May 8 marked the anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender in 1945, ending World War II in Europe. Today, 76 years later, NATO, the military successor to the Western allies who fought in that war, is seen by many once again at death's door, made moribund by the withdrawal of American forces and commitment during the Trump administration and by the failure or indifference of many of its European members to mounting a credible defense against an increasingly aggressive Russia.

One benchmark of this decline is the reluctance of a majority of NATO members to allocate at least 2% of GDP to defense spending, a commitment made seven years ago at the Heads of State and Government summit in Wales.


Critics also note the deplorable status of many of Europe's military forces in readiness, training and numbers. The entire U.K. military, for example, is smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps (175,000 versus 160,000). Many German tanks are unserviceable and pilot training does not provide ample flying hours. Similar observations apply elsewhere.


On the other hand, Russia is seen as modernizing its conventional military of about 900,000 active duty troops for 21st century war, as fought in Syria and Ukraine, and its strategic nuclear forces. Its aggressive use of exercises such as the one underway in the Black Sea aimed at Ukraine and overflights of NATO ships at sea or in the air is taken as a further side of hostile Russian intent.

And the fixation of the United States on China as the "pacing threat" and the "tilt" of the United Kingdom to the Pacific reaffirm these concerns about NATO's ability to deter and defend against Russian encroachment.

But wait a minute. Is Russia really 10 feet tall? Or is NATO underplaying its strengths?

From the Kremlin's perspective, Russia is surrounded by the powerful, 30-member NATO alliance. Russia knows its economy is too energy dependent and that its population is in numerical decline and ill health. And geography is no friend.

East of the Urals, Russia is largely unpopulated. China may be a tactical ally. It has never been a long-term partner.

Despite Moscow's fear of being surrounded by NATO, of the 30 members, only four directly border on Russia: Norway in the north; Estonia and Latvia in the Baltics; and fourth is the United States in the Barents Sea. America's Little Diomede is only a mortar round distance from a nearby Russian island. Poland and Lithuania cut Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, off from Russia.


Russia is confined to the Black Sea by restricted passage through the Bosporus straits guarded on both sides by NATO member Turkey and in the Baltic by seven NATO members. And it is severely outgunned by NATO.

Using open sources, in virtually every category, the numerical military balance is vastly in NATO's favor. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, NATO spent over $1 trillion on defense last year, with the United States accounting for about three-fourths. Russia, whose defense spending is declining, spent about $65 billion, giving NATO a 16-to-1 advantage.

NATO has about 3.3 million active duty troops and another 2.1 million in reserve; Russia about 900,000 and 2 million reserves.

NATO possesses about five times as many tanks; four times as many combat aircraft; three times as many attack helicopters; and 300 large surface combatants and 140 submarines to Russia's 35 warships and 50 submarines. Concerning the strategic nuclear balance, New Start limits the United States and Russia to a total of 1550 warheads (each with 700 deployed and 800 deployed or non-deployed launchers), and does not include the British and French nuclear deterrent of about 400 warheads total.

Quantitative military inferiority and Russian paranoia about encirclement has led Moscow to rely on nuclear weapons to overcome conventional force imbalances and "active measures," those short of the direct use of military force to divide and disrupt using cyber, social media, intimidation and leveraging its supply of natural gas to Europe as an economic weapon.


Several conclusions are clear. First, NATO spends more than enough on defense, provided that spending is done wisely to develop alliance as opposed to individual member states' capabilities. Second, NATO discounts Russia weaknesses. Third, NATO is failing in not countering Russian "active measures."

With that understanding, NATO can readily enhance its posture vis a vis Russia. But it needs a strategy and plan for the 21st century information age of warfare and not one rooted in the 20th century industrial age. And it needs forward-thinking leadership to make that happen.Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became Looming Existential Threats to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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