April 6, 2016
On the Balance of Forces in the East
NATO doesn’t need more guns, money, or aircraft. It needs them where they’d count.
By James Hasik
||∆ in fighter inventory since 2003
||Inventory in 2015
|NATO top four total
This simple table bears a few observations. First, as the legions of the Armée de l’Air and the Aéronavale are in good shape, anyone whining about the French in this country can just stop. We can complain about Greek and British parsimony. We certainly should complain about German mismanagement, as the Luftwaffe’s fighter force is in poor serviceability. But the situation is hardly dire. Simply put, the air forces on the European side of NATO have the Russian Air Force and Naval Aviation outnumbered. With their Typhoons, Rafales, and late-model F-16s, they have the Russians rather outclassed too. Moreover, none of this counts the ground-based air defense missile forces: the Luftwaffe, the Hellenic Army, the Royal Netherlands Army, and the Spanish Army all have very capable MIM-104 Patriot missile batteries. The Poles too will be buying into Patriots of MEADS soon. No one should expect the Russian Air Force to last long against that array of force.
So Russia is seriously outgunned, except in two respects. The correlation of forces differs dramatically with both nuclear deterrence and local trouble-making. Vladimir Putin is a very smart guy, who so far has known not to seek a real brawl. Rather, he knows when he can commit a few squadrons to a bug hunt in Syria, or a few battalions to a stand-up fight inside Ukraine. The problem is that NATO’s strongest forces lie to the rear. Excepting Poland, no NATO member state on the eastern frontier of the alliance has military spending that can even locally rival Russia’s. Almost all are seriously increasing their budgets, but they have a long way to go. The Baltic States frankly can’t, as they lack the population to man strong forces. Using data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Polish Foreign Ministry offered today on Twitter (@NATOSummits) a useful map, which I will reproduce as another table:
||∆ in military spending since 2014
||Spending this year (US $ B)
|Eastern frontier total
Granted, spending is not power. In the news today too was the factoid that Saudi Arabia has surpassed Russia as having the third-largest military budget worldwide. Also on Twitter, Peter W. Singer (@peterwsinger) noted this morning that what’s “interesting is how little military capability [and] influence, relative to others in [the] top ten” of spenders, the Saudis actually have. The Russians, in contrast, have more than a little money, and they know what they’re doing.
NATO’s problem is not that it lacks troops, guns, aircraft, missiles or money. It’s that it lacks those things on the frontier, where revanchist Russians have been more than implicitly threatening the independence of member states. We’ll talk more about all this at the Atlantic Council on the morning of 14 April, when we host Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas for a discussion on “Defending Europe's Eastern Flank”. See you then.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.