WASHINGTON, Jan. 28, 2016 —
The NATO alliance has been challenged in the past year, but the alliance’s 28 member nations are responding, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels today.
The secretary general briefed the press as part of his annual report on the alliance.
No one can ignore the challenges, he said. “We saw this in the brutal terrorist attacks in our cities and in the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II,” he said. “We also saw it in Russia’s continued actions in Ukraine and its recent military build-up in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.”
But, he noted, NATO countries rose to face these challenges together.
“We implemented the greatest strengthening of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” Stoltenberg said. “And cuts in defense spending among European allies have now practically stopped.”
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO allies aimed at 2 percent of gross domestic product being spent on security. Few countries managed that -- the United States being one.
Now the defense cuts have stopped and seem to be reversing, Stoltenberg said. “In 2015, defense cuts were close to zero,” the secretary general said. “Five allies now meet our guideline on spending 2 percent of GDP or more on defense. Sixteen allies spent more on defense in real terms in 2015, and 23 allies increased the amount they are spending on new equipment.”
More to Do
But more needs to be done, Stoltenberg said, “because, to the east and to the south, we face the biggest security challenges in a generation.”
NATO has responded. The NATO Response Force has more than 40,000 troops, and its core -- the very high readiness Spearhead Force -- is now operational. “I was really impressed when I saw it in action at its first deployment exercise in Poland,” the secretary general said.
The alliance is also establishing eight force integration units or small headquarters in the eastern countries, Stoltenberg said. “They support planning, training and reinforcements, if needed,” he said. “To combat hybrid warfare, we are improving our intelligence and early warning.”
NATO is also streamlining the decision-making apparatus, and enhancing its cyber defenses, the secretary general said.
“Last year, we conducted around 300 allied exercises, including the largest and most complex one in over a decade, with over 36,000 troops, 140 aircraft, and 60 ships from over 30 different nations,” he said.
In 2016, the alliance will increase the number and scope of exercises, Stoltenberg said.
Russian aggression in Ukraine continues and the Eastern allies are particularly worried. “We have visibly increased NATO’s presence in the eastern part of our alliance,” he said. “Over the last two years, Russian air activity close to NATO’s European airspace has increased by around 70 percent. In response, allied aircraft scrambled over 400 times to intercept Russian aircraft.”
In the south, the alliance increased the presence of airborne warning and control system aircraft over Turkey, and the alliance has made substantial progress with our new alliance ground surveillance system, “including the first test flight of one of our new Global Hawk drones,” the secretary general said. “This system will provide real-time intelligence to our commanders in theater.”
Stoltenberg praised the arrival in Spain of two more U.S. ships carrying the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, and touted progress on the Aegis Ashore facility in Romania. “This spring, we will break ground for a new site in Poland,” he said.
NATO is supporting the Resolute Support mission and the alliance effort is to deny safe haven to international terrorists. “We continue to train, advise and assist the Afghan army and police,” Stoltenberg said.
The Afghans face significant challenges, he said, but they are holding their ground. “We decided in 2015 to maintain our current level of troops this year,” the secretary general said. “We are looking at how we can contribute to the funding of the Afghan security forces until 2020.”
Stoltenberg also addressed the global coalition to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “The coalition’s high degree of interoperability is a key asset,” he said. “To address the root causes of instability, NATO is working even closer with our partners in the region. We are building the defense capacity of Jordan. We will soon start training Iraqi officers, and we are working with Tunisia on special operations forces and intelligence to help them be stronger in defending themselves.”
NATO continues its mission in Kosovo, which continues to bring much needed security and stability to a region that has been highly volatile, the secretary general said.
Last year, Stoltenberg noted, “we [made] another important decision, which will advance stability in the Western Balkans: We formally invited Montenegro to begin talks to become the 29th member of NATO." Accession negotiations will begin in mid-February, he said.
“In less than six months from now, allied leaders will meet at our summit in Warsaw,” the secretary general said. “We will take the next steps to strengthen our defense and deterrence. We will decide on the right balance between a forward presence in the east and our ability to reinforce.”
In the years ahead, Stoltenberg said, NATO will remain an anchor of stability; staying strong, open for dialogue, and working with partners around the world.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)