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NATO Strategic Concept Seminar (Future of NATO)

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Hans, Mr. Secretary General, Secretary Albright, Admiral Rondeau, General Abrial, it is a pleasure to be here with you today.
And my thanks also to Allied Command Transformation and the National Defense University for hosting this seminar. I can think of no better setting for a discussion of the future of the transatlantic alliance than an institution like this one, devoted to educating a new generation of national-security leaders.
This seminar, the final one before the group of experts begins drafting its recommendations for the new Strategic Concept, is devoted to future NATO structures, forces, and capabilities. 
Considering that, I think it is important to note at the outset that, right now, more than 120,000 troops are serving as part of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan – and thousands more are on their way. Most are living in austere conditions, and many are facing enemy fire on a daily basis. That is a stark reminder that NATO is not now, nor should it ever be, a talk-shop or a Renaissance weekend on steroids. It is a military alliance with real-world obligations that have life-or-death consequences. Those realities must inform everything we do.
Troops in combat also remind us that the core function of the alliance remains the same today as in the past: to protect the territorial integrity, political independence, and security of member nations from traditional threats as well as the new challenges of the 21st century; to deter potential adversaries; and, when forced to fight, to do so with the full support of member nations – and the expectation that everyone will fulfill their Article 5 responsibilities and duties.
It has been more than a decade since NATO’s last Strategic Concept, and in that time there has been a great evolution in the alliance – and also in the international arena and the nature of the threats to our security. I want to focus this morning on two main issues. First, since the process of public deliberations on the new Strategic Concept is nearing its end, I’d like to discuss some of the specific ideas I would like to see reflected in the final document.  And then I want to talk about how the alliance can ensure that the new Strategic Concept is more than just words on paper and is actually reflected in NATO’s operational and institutional structures.
As a starting point, it should be clear that no one is trying to reinvent the wheel with this Strategic Concept. In fact, as Madeleine Albright mentioned last year, most of the conclusions reached in 1999 still hold true.  The task is, instead, to recommit ourselves to our common defense and hone the missions and purposes of NATO: to use what we have learned over the last decade – about the most likely and lethal threats to member states – to craft a succinct document that is both comprehensible and compelling for a new generation of citizens coming of age in the post–Cold War, post-9/11 world.
At the strategic level, the greatest evolution in NATO over the last two decades is the transition from a static, defensive force to an expeditionary force – from a defensive alliance to a security alliance.  This change is a result of a new security environment in which threats are more likely to emanate from failed, failing, or fractured states than from aggressor states; where dangerous, non-state actors often operate from within nations with which we are not at war, or from within our own borders; and where weapons proliferation and new technologies make possible the specter of chaos and mass destruction in any of our capitals.
Though the 1999 Strategic Concept mentioned all these in some form, it was the attacks of September 11th and the Afghanistan campaign that turned what had been theoretical analysis into reality. Few would have imagined that the first invocation of Article 5 in the alliance’s history would follow an attack on the United States homeland by a non-state entity based in a nation far beyond NATO’s traditional borders – a desperately poor country scorned and ignored by the international community.
It is clear that our security interests are no longer tied solely to the territorial integrity of member states, as instability elsewhere can be a real threat. Just consider the types of missions undertaken by NATO over the last two decades – from Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Kosovo, to counter-terrorism in the Mediterranean and counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, to the massive, multi-faceted stability, reconstruction, and counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.
I know that some see a tension between these new missions and the core goal of defending the territory of member states from attack – a point made more relevant after Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its recent military exercises on NATO’s border, the largest of that type since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As some of the experts noted at the first seminar, however, there is no inherent contradiction between force projection and collective defense since just about any conflict will probably require deployable forces. 
Still, the Strategic Concept must be clear that Article 5 means what it says: an attack on one is an attack on all. The concept also must go further to strengthen Article 5’s credibility with a firm commitment to enhance deterrence through appropriate contingency planning, military exercises, and force development.
            This brings me to my next point: capabilities. Here, I think the recent past – and recent operations – offer guidance. No longer is the predominant threat to Europe a land invasion by armored formations supported by massed artillery and waves of fighters and bombers. Instead, as I mentioned, the threats are more diffuse; more likely to come from outside NATO’s traditional borders; and more likely to require new approaches that incorporate far more than just military power. A few examples in particular come to mind:
 
  • First, missile defense. The threat from rogue nations is real – in particular Iran, which is focusing its efforts on short-and-medium-range missiles that could strike most of Europe. Last year, the Obama administration announced a new plan for missile defense in Europe – a phased, adaptive approach that will give us real capabilities in a shorter period of time than the previous plan. We consider this a U.S.-funded contribution to NATO missile defense, which is critical to the collective-defense mission to protect our populations, territory, and forces.
  • Second, the need for closer cooperation with partners and non-military multinational organizations. One of the lessons of Kosovo and Afghanistan is that the missions we are most likely to undertake require a comprehensive approach that leverages both military and civilian capabilities. In recent years, there has been a recognition that the EU will not supplant NATO or vice versa – but that both organizations have unique skill-sets that can, if used properly, add up to more than the sum of their individual parts. 
  • And third, training and advising the security forces of other nations needs to become a key alliance mission, with all that entails for doctrine, organization, and institutional processes. As the last two United States Quadrennial Defense Reviews have stated, building the security capacity of partners is a priority for the U.S. military as a whole. It helps lessen the necessity of costly and controversial military intervention, and, failing that, allows for a deliberate and responsible drawdown of international forces.  In Afghanistan, the alliance has struggled to field the trainers and mentors needed for this mission. We have to do better in the future – not just in Afghanistan, but in other places where training indigenous forces could help prevent chaos that leads to much more significant challenges down the road.
 
            In all of this, heads of state and government have to commit to maintaining the forces and weapons needed to defend themselves and each other. This may require developing new ways to maintain capabilities through multinational procurement, more common funding, or reallocating resources based on collective rather than national priorities – as the Danes have done by eliminating their submarine fleet in order to double their expeditionary forces. At a time of financial scarcity at home, increased reliance on collective efforts is one way to do more with less.
Our governments must also make a strong commitment to the ongoing process of NATO transformation and reform, which brings me to the second topic I want to address: the need to make sure that the Strategic Concept is implemented in tandem with sweeping reforms to change the way NATO does business.
The challenges we face, and the reforms we need, are simply too pressing to wait for the conclusion of the Strategic Concept process. In parallel with our deliberations on the Strategic Concept, we must also address numerous structural flaws.  The conversations allies had on this subject earlier this month in Istanbul were a good start, and I look forward to the secretary general’s recommendations at the next defense ministerial in June. In the meantime, I would like to offer a few ideas.
Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems. The NATO budgetary crisis is a case in point and a symptom of deeper problems with the way NATO perceives threats, formulates requirements, and prioritizes and allocates resources. It is hardly two months into the new year, but we already face shortfalls of hundreds of millions of euros – a natural consequence of having underinvested in collective defense for over a decade.
The problem is not just underfunding of NATO. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO and national defense budgets have fallen consistently – even with unprecedented operations outside NATO’s territory over the past five years. Just 5 of 28 allies achieve the defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP.
These budget limitations relate to a larger cultural and political trend affecting the alliance. One of the triumphs of the last century was the pacification of Europe after ages of ruinous warfare. But, as I’ve said before, I believe we have reached an inflection point, where much of the continent has gone too far in the other direction. The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st. Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.
For many years, for example, we have been aware that NATO needs more cargo aircraft and more helicopters of all types – and yet we still don’t have these capabilities. And their absence is directly impacting operations in Afghanistan.  Similarly, NATO requires more aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms for immediate use on the battlefield.
Despite the need to spend more on vital equipment for ongoing missions, the alliance has been unwilling to fundamentally change how it sets priorities and allocates resources. In the short term, we need to provide our troops in the field the resources they need and fund other urgent priorities, such as missile defense. All other expenditures have to be thoroughly scrutinized – especially those that we simply cannot justify during a time of war when other needs are far more pressing.
We also have to acknowledge and address excess infrastructure and outdated command structures that bear little resemblance to NATO’s real-world needs. I know how politically sensitive this can be. America’s first secretary of war, Henry Knox, was tasked with building an American Navy. To get the support he needed from the Congress, he ended up with six frigates being built in six shipyards in six states.
            More recently, the U.S. experience with multiple rounds of base realignment and closures – BRAC – offers one model that could be a starting point for the alliance. By using an independent committee to come up with recommendations, and by only allowing the U.S. Congress an up or down vote, tough decisions were made that saved billions of dollars. We could adopt a similar process to examine NATO’s command structure: an outside committee whose recommendations would have to be decided on by our nations in a single vote.
All of this should be a wake-up call that NATO needs serious, far-reaching, and immediate reforms to address a crisis that has been years in the making. And unless the Strategic Concept spurs operational and institutional changes like those I just mentioned, it will not be worth the paper it is printed on. 
Let me offer a final thought.  Over the last year – and even just in the last three months – allies have demonstrated an unparalleled level of commitment to the mission in Afghanistan with non-U.S. troops scheduled to increase from approximately 30,000 last summer to 50,000.  By any measure, that is an extraordinary feat – and a clear indication that the international community has the will and the resolve to see this mission through to a successful end.
The challenge now is to bring that same level of commitment – that same willingness to make tough decisions – to institutional matters that are so critical to the long-term viability and credibility of NATO, and to the transatlantic security project writ large. Throughout its history, this alliance has shown that it can evolve with the times – that it can be relevant and indeed irreplaceable even as the contours of the strategic landscape have changed in dramatic ways. Our task today is to uphold the long legacy that has made NATO the most successful military alliance in history.
I thank you for this opportunity, and I look forward to seeing the results of your hard work on the new Strategic Concept in coming months.

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