'Smart Defense': Should Europe's Militaries Specialize?

The NATO defense collective wants to do less with more by having member states develop military specialties, like workers on an assembly line.

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U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen unveil the logo of the Chicago summit meeting in Brussels. (Reuters)

An inescapable fact of modern defense planning is budget austerity. Smaller budgets are prompting some tough thinking across Europe and in the U.S. about how these countries can maintain their global security posture with less money. Under normal circumstances, less money would mean less equipment, fewer people, fewer activities, and fewer operations.

NATO, however, seems to think it can get around the limitations of a smaller budget. "Smart Defense," as they call it, is based around a simple idea: specialization and cooperation, in accordance with the principles first established at the 2010 Lisbon Summit. Adam Smith wrote of the economies of scale that a factory might achieve by specializing labor, and NATO wants to apply this idea by encouraging national militaries to specialize in specific mission areas will allow them to cooperate together to achieve a much greater, more capable, NATO force.

The Smart Defense framework rests on a couple of assumptions, however, that could be tricky to apply. Cooperation is not always easy, as with NATO's experience in Libya. Last year, it was not easy to build even a tentative consensus about the alliance's role in intervening there -- and if it weren't for U.S. equipment and logistics support, the intervention could have taken a dramatically different shape (if it happened at all).

Before national specialization, a relatively cheap, quick campaign like the Libya intervention was already straining NATO, which is also still fighting in Afghanistan. Within the alliance, not all member countries were enthusiastic about the bombing campaign. This poses a critical question for future NATO operations: once countries specialize so much that they depend on one another to carry out a military campaign, what happens to NATO's military effectiveness if its political leaders start disagreeing?

The UK and France are discussing the prospect of sharing their aircraft carriers. It sounds like a clever way of pooling resources so that both countries can spend less without sacrificing too much in the way of capabilities, and as long as they share relevant foreign and military policies, that's true. But what if the two nations disagree about whether, or how, to use those carriers? It's not impossible. Think of the 2003 decision to invade Iraq: France opposed it, and the UK supported it. 

Using specialization and cooperation to make up defense shortfalls introduces new complexity into foreign policy and strategic decision-making. It will require even more consensus than is currently necessary, and if highly specialized countries disagree with the larger consensus, it might only take one or two countries to hobble any chances of success by withholding their equipment and personnel.

It's true that some militaries are good at some sorts of tasks and bad at others, but codifying such specialization into a "smart defense" alliance might not work in the way that it would with the factory-specialization metaphor. After all, factories have defined outputs, constant inputs, and regimented production processes with tight tolerances that allow for incremental improvement and efficiency. A military does not function that way -- especially when scrambling to national defense.

Ultimately, NATO's challenge is about how to do less with less. There is a movement within some NATO circles to expand it's so-called "out of area operations" (that is, to do more outside of Europe), or to become a sort of regional or even global guarantor of security. These missions, however, are more expensive than Europe, or probably the U.S., can afford. A tighter focus on NATO's mission (securing Europe, assisting countries in transition, humanitarian intervention, and so on) may better help to focus spending on fulfilling that mission.

Right now, however, NATO seems to be experiencing a similar existential crisis as that facing the U.S. military: a lower budget means lowering ambitions. But it doesn't want to give up anything, and wants to do more than ever before. That is a mistake. A NATO that focuses on doing what it can do well, even if it is constrained, is better for Europe, better for the U.S., and better for the world, than a money-starved NATO spreading itself too thin.