Esper left Washington this morning to participate in the conference.
The acting secretary said in a memo yesterday that he will continue to follow the lines of effort detailed in the National Defense Strategy. This includes building a lethal force, strengthening alliances and reforming the department. NATO is America's most important alliance.
Defense ministers from NATO's 30 nations will continue work on modernizing NATO capabilities "to ensure our deterrence and defence remains effective," Stoltenberg said during a news conference previewing the meeting.
Burden-sharing is a hot topic in the alliance, and the secretary general announced that Canada and the European allies have increased defense spending 3.9% for 2019. "We now have five consecutive years of growth in defense spending," he said. "By the end of next year, European allies and Canada will have added a cumulative total of well over $100 billion since 2016."
He also announced that more NATO allies are spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense — a goal the alliance set during its Wales summit in 2014 and reaffirmed in last year's summit in Brussels. The nations that have reached the 2% goal are the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece, Poland, Latvia and Romania. A number of other nations are due to hit the 2% mark next year. "The majority of allies have plans to reach 2% by 2024," Stoltenberg said.
While the money is important, what the money is buying says more about alliance determination. "We are also investing in more new capabilities," the secretary general said. "This year, 16 allies are expected to meet the benchmark of at least 20% of defense spending devoted to major equipment."
The defense ministers will also discuss Russia — specifically, Russia's continuing violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The nation has until Aug. 2 to come into compliance with the treaty by destroying its SS-8 missiles. Russian authorities have said they will not do it.
"The United States and other allies have tried to engage with Russia about their new missile system for years, including in the NATO-Russia Council," Stoltenberg said. "We are planning to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council next week to raise this issue again. We call on Russia to take the responsible path. But unfortunately, we have seen no indication that Russia intends to do so. In fact, it continues to develop and field the new missiles."
The defense ministers will discuss the next steps in this process. Stoltenberg said any response by NATO will be measured and defensive. "We will not mirror what Russia does," he said. "We do not intend to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe."
Russia has invested scarce funds in developing new capabilities and modernizing old ones. NATO must stay ahead of the technological curve, and the ministers will discuss artificial intelligence, quantum computing and next-generation communications, as well as ways to invest that don't waste or duplicate efforts.
The ministers will discuss creating a framework for how NATO should deal with the opportunities and challenges in space, Stoltenberg said. "Space is part of our daily lives," he added. "While it can be used for peaceful purposes, it can also be used for aggression. Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponized. Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications. So it is important that we are vigilant and resilient – also in space. NATO can serve as a key forum bringing allies together to share capabilities and information."
The ministers will continue discussions on Afghanistan. "While the security situation remains serious, we see a unique opportunity for peace," the secretary general said, adding that the allies fully support U.S. efforts to reach a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
"Finally, we will host a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS," Stoltenberg said. "The coalition has made remarkable progress retaking all the territory once held by ISIS terrorists. Now we must ensure that they do not come back."
Stoltenberg said he expects Esper will discuss the situation in the Persian Gulf and Iran, noting that Iran is working to destabilize the region with its support for terrorist groups, its missile program and the announcement that Iran will restart the enrichment of uranium.
"All allies share these concerns," he said. "I think that we welcome the fact that even though Iran is not formally on the agenda for the defense ministerial meeting, I expect that Iran will be discussed, both in the meeting and in different bilateral meetings that take place on the margins of the defense ministerial meeting. And I also expect that Defense Secretary Esper will brief allies. And I think this is useful, because then NATO is a platform for NATO allies and ministers to exchange views — to exchange analyses about the challenges we all face in the Gulf."