CHICAGO — While the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has declared the NATO summit a success for getting Europeans to better coordinate their defense spending, some experts say the devil is in the details and those details are still forthcoming.

“I think Chicago showed that we can deliver,” Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, senior director for Europe on the National Security Council, said May 24 at the Atlantic Council. “The alliance can mobilize resources and move forward together.”

NATO leaders gathered here May 20-21 as European countries continued to grapple with a sovereign debt crisis that threatens to break up the euro zone. Financial contributions to NATO are already lower than desired, and European defense budgets are expected to shrink further before an economic recovery takes place.

One of the Chicago summit’s main goals, after shoring up commitment to the mission in Afghanistan, was to begin implementing Smart Defense, aimed at getting more out of available defense dollars through multinational cooperation.

In her remarks, Sherwood-Randall highlighted three flagship projects: the Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) program, advancements on a NATO missile defense capability and an extension of the Baltic air policing mission.

These three projects were important for the summit because they were large and visible, said Stephen Flanagan, a defense and security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In Chicago, NATO signed an agreement with Northrop Grumman to buy five Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles to provide the alliance with its own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability so it no longer has to rely on the United States. At least 14 countries are contributing to the Global Hawk purchase.

The push for AGS predates last year’s operations in Libya, where NATO’s ISR capability gap was made more apparent. Flanagan said it had been a slog to get countries to agree to the capability and then commit funding.

“After Libya, the French were claiming that we didn’t need this long-dwell, high-level surveillance, but that we needed something more tactical,” Flanagan said. “I think what they’ve done is agreed to go ahead with this, but say that we need both.”

In Chicago, NATO also declared an interim capability of a NATO ballistic-missile defense system. Leaders touted it as another multinational effort that promotes sharing of defense capabilities.

In a cavernous media center, an exhibit on NATO missile defense stood alone in the middle of the room. On the second day of the summit, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen toured the exhibit as photographers snapped pictures.

The exhibit brought attention to the fact that now-operational control of certain missile defense sensors and weapons is in NATO’s hands versus individual countries’. The United States has also transferred operational control of a missile defense radar in Turkey to NATO.

Finally, NATO extended the Baltic air policing effort, which some saw as repackaging an older effort as something new.

“It’s true — it’s not a dramatic, new initiative,” Flanagan said.

He explained that it was highlighted to reaffirm NATO’s commitment to those countries and to show how sharing capabilities can work. For instance, pooling several squadrons into one air force in Eastern Europe might make sense versus every country having its own.


Smart Defense

During a May 20 meeting on defense capabilities, Obama told the other leaders at the table about the Pentagon’s recent strategy review and urged them to take a similar approach in thinking about their future defense budgets, Sherwood-Randall said.

Speaking at a press conference at the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who initiated a similar strategic review when he took office, said he joined Obama in support of this strategy-driven approach.

For NATO, this is embodied in the NATO Forces 2020 initiative, which is meant to carry out the Smart Defense mindset by thinking about what kind of NATO force is needed in the future and then making sure resources match those priorities.

“One of the things we did at this summit is to not only identify those gaps but start to close them,” Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said May 22 during a conference call with reporters.

Europeans are taking a more strategic approach to spending their defense dollars, he said. “There’s a clear shift away from personnel into investment, which is the right way to start thinking about it,” Daalder said. “Europe is still personnel heavy when it comes to militaries and it needs to spend more on [research and development] and investment.”

The second way to maximize military spending is to realize that countries have to cooperate more and combine their efforts, he said.

The Global Hawk purchase was an example of this, Daalder said: “That’s a real capability with real output down the line and that’s how we need to, in these next few years, focus on spending our dollars and euros more wisely.”

Flanagan said he thought the Obama administration got the kind of commitment it was looking for from the Europeans.

“It wanted, I think, a commitment to a longer-term plan, not just, ‘We’re going to do better with the resources available,’ but they wanted this commitment to the idea that we have to make sure that we have the critical capabilities that we need over the next decade,” he said.

For others, not enough detailed information was made public on a longer list of more practical, short-term multinational projects.

At the summit, Rasmussen said, “Today, we approved a robust package of more than 20 multinational projects, to provide the capabilities we need at a price we can afford.”

However, details of the projects were not released as part of the official statements and declarations to come out of the summit.

“It is somewhat disturbing that they did not reach consensus to release a public statement,” said Ian Brzezinski, an Atlantic Council senior fellow who served as the U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary for Europe and NATO policy from 2001 to 2005.

Flanagan said that over the next several months NATO will be hammering out the details on these projects and firming up resources for them.