Although NATO militaries have been fighting wars for the best part of the last two decades, they are not working well together when it comes to buying much-needed equipment for these operations. No matter how many declarations heads of state and defense ministers have made, until today military spending largely finances back offices, subsidizes unviable defense companies and is, overall, far from being coordinated.
For a perfect example, look no further than to the arsenal of armored personnel carriers (APCs). These vehicles are designed to transport infantry to the battlefield and to keep them safe from shrapnel, ambush or explosive devices next to the road. In short, APCs have become increasingly important, not only in peacekeeping missions.
Europeans seem to like their APCs. In fact, they currently use more than 20 different models in their armed forces. The US military, in comparison, only has three, making it somewhat easier to train drivers and maintenance personnel, to send spare parts to other parts of the world and to construct transport aircraft which can carry APCs there in the first place. Neither NATO planners nor politicians seem to have heard much about economies of scale.
Some procurement decisions look promising at first glance but do not hold up to the promise on closer inspection. The Tiger attack helicopter, for example, has been ordered by France and Germany with officials in both countries requesting special modifications. The result is that crews have to be trained on a national level rather than in a combined training centre.
Decisions about military equipment are influenced by staff officers, yet they are made by politicians. It is therefore more of a political question than a military one. Is it really necessary to have certain equipment only because it is manufactured by a company that is located in the respective country? German and French pilots would be perfectly happy to be trained together on the same helicopter, and when Dutch sailors are deployed on a frigate, the same type is certainly sophisticated enough for British or Danish sailors as well.
As it seems almost impossible to coordinate national procurement decisions, NATO should provide a forum where money is being collected and then spent by the alliance itself. The Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) program is the perfect example. Overall, 13 NATO members are contributing money to acquire five unmanned aerial vehicles. These will then be owned and operated by NATO, meaning they will be available to all allies.
Everybody who has ever shared a flat can instantly recognize the beauty of this system. Like flatmates, different NATO members throw money in a pot to buy some common equipment. Whether it is a new TV set or some new drones, the point is that everybody contributes and everybody profits. In the case of AGS, it would be near impossible for Estonia or Slovakia to buy and operate their own drones. As members of the alliance, however, their soldiers are going to profit from extended surveillance when operations are conducted in an otherwise inaccessible environment.
It is highly improbable that any NATO member state – except the U.S. – will go to war without the support of other countries. Therefore, integration of military assets makes a lot of sense in an age of large-scale cuts in most military budgets. More importantly, it is the only way to preserve a meaningful deterrence and fighting capability. As Thorvald Stoltenberg, Norway's former minister of defense, observed in February 2009, 'the alternative to cooperation could be a situation where small and medium-sized countries lose their ability to maintain a credible defense'.
Most of the smaller NATO members have more admirals than ships and more generals than fighter jets, yet a fully-fledged military is much more a matter of national pride than of necessity. By building its own military capabilities, NATO can catch two birds with one stone. First, no member is relegated to the sidelines as they all have access to the same resources. Secondly, a lot of money can be saved when common ownership finally replaces duplication.
Dirk Siebels holds a Master's degree in International Studies from Durham University. He is the co-founder of Xiphias Consulting, a company specializing in political and risk analysis in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.