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NATO: There’s more to burden sharing than 2 percent

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CDA Institute Guest Contributor Chris Kilford, a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, offers his analysis and insight into the complicated area of defence budgeting and allocation.

With the release of the NATO Secretary General’s 2016 Annual Report it’s clear to see why the United States is generally fed-​up with most of its NATO allies who it accuses of spending far too little on defence. But the scolding never seems to have much of an impact. Indeed, Washington’s allies re-​pledged to reach a 2 percent of GDP defence spending target by 2024 at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, but then did exactly the opposite. Apart from the US only Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia upped their defence spending but not by much. No wonder that some of the bigger NATO countries like Canada needed to seek cover when US Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke at a gathering of alliance defence ministers in Brussels last month and waved a Marine trained finger at them.

However, as Craig Stone recently noted in a Canadian Global Affairs Institute report “how much a nation spends on its armed forces as a percentage of GDP is not a good measure for determining actual military capability.” Some NATO countries, for example, spend huge amounts on salaries and pensions with little left over for arms and ammunition. That’s one reason why NATO members also pledged in 2014 to spend a minimum of 20 percent of their defence budgets acquiring major new equipment.

According to NATO, Canada spent about $20.6 billion on defence in 2016 with approximately 46 percent going towards personnel costs, 18 percent for equipment, 5 percent for infrastructure upkeep and the rest on such items as operations and maintenance. Overall, it’s not a bad record although our defence spending has remained fixed at around 1 percent of GDP for several years given that important defence acquisitions were postponed.

But look at Belgium. NATO figures show that 77 percent of its defence budget went to personnel costs in 2016 and only 4.6 percent for equipment. Portugal spent 78 percent of its defence budget on personnel costs, Slovenia 76 percent, Greece 70 percent and Italy 69 percent. The result is people in uniform but often with aging equipment, no money for training and the potential for a leaky roof overhead.

Turkey might have spent 1.69 percent of its GDP on defence in 2016 and fielded an impressive 380,000 regular and conscript troops, but a good deal of that combat power was simply not available for NATO’s use because much of the army and air force remained focused on combatting the Kurdish PKK in Turkey’s south-​east. In addition, approximately 30,000 Turkish troops are permanently stationed in Cyprus. And let’s not forget Turkey’s failed coup last year and its recent military foray into Syria.

The US should also be reminded that the NATO alliance is not the one-​way street it routinely makes it out to be. For example, in return for Washington’s defensive umbrella many NATO allies have provided troops, often half-​heartedly, in support of American-​led post-​Cold War adventures in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. As a consequence of these interventions, countries such as Germany, Greece, Italy and Turkey, among many others, are now responsible for millions of refugees. Yet soon after assuming office, President Trump was quick to slash the number of refugees the US will take in this year from a planned 110,000 to just 50,000.

The point is that burden sharing and overall military effectiveness in the alliance is more than just spending 2 percent of GDP on defence. Besides, as Stone importantly notes, “Canada’s military is far more capable than those of other nations that spend much more on defence as a percentage of GDP.” Not that Canada should ever rest on its laurels, of course.

To learn more on this topic, read Dr. Craig Stone’s report on defence spending here.

Chris Kilford is a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Image Credit: Canadian Forces Combat Camera/​Department of National Defence

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