As the International Security Assistance Force transitions to a sustaining role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, will NATO retreat from its responsibilities, or innovate to develop and share the capabilities needed to meet growing, global security challenges?
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta delivered a speech at King’s College in London Jan. 18 today, built around that question.
The audience included students and faculty members of the school’s Department of War Studies and the secretary noted it was “especially these young leaders” he wished to address.
The more than 60-year-old NATO alliance “remains the bedrock of Americaís global … partnerships,” Panetta said. “But today, after over 11 years of war, I believe we are at another turning point in the history of the transatlantic alliance.”
NATO nations came together in 1949 to form a common defense against the monolithic Soviet superpower. Now, Panetta noted, the alliance – if it is to remain an effective, capable, enduring multilateral security alliance – must prepare to quickly respond to a wide range of security threats even as member nations, under budget pressures, spend less on their militaries.
“The bottom line is that no one nation can confront the threats … alone,” the secretary said. “We have got to build an innovative, flexible, and rotational model for forward-deployed presence and training.
In transforming its capabilities, NATO must develop innovative alliance cooperation, invest in new frontiers, and build regional partnerships, he said.
Innovative cooperation, Panetta said, involves positioning and equipping forces so they can respond to threats rapidly and effectively. For example, he noted, the Defense Department has moved two heavy Army brigades out of Europe.
“But … this effort is not primarily about cuts,” he said. “We will be supporting new rotational deployments, enhanced training and exercises, and other new initiatives that bolster the readiness of our forces and build their capacity to seamlessly work together.”
The secretary listed some of those U.S. initiatives: deploying ballistic missile defense-equipped destroyers to Rota, Spain; establishing a new U.S. aviation detachment in Poland; and deploying U.S. Army battalions on a rotational basis to participate in the NATO Response Force.
“We are making tangible investments in these new forms of cooperation to make the alliance more responsive and more agile,” the secretary said. “And we are doing so in a cost-effective way that meets our fiscal responsibilities.”
Turning to “new frontiers,” Panetta urged NATO commitment to cyber defense.
“For years, I have been deeply concerned by intellectual property theft, by attacks against private sector institutions, and the continued probing of military and critical infrastructure networks,” he said. Panetta said cyber- attacks could “paralyze our economies” and potentially destroy national power grids, government systems, financial and banking networks.
“That technology is real and threatening today,” Panetta said. “As societies that rely on cyberspace, Europe and the United States have more to gain from stronger cyber security than anyone else. And our economies are so interdependent; failing to act together could leave all of us dangerously exposed.”
NATO must consider what its role should be in defending member nations from cyber attacks, the secretary said.
“We must begin to take the necessary steps to develop additional alliance cyber defense capabilities,” he said. “To that end, I urge that in the coming year [that] NATO ministers hold a session to closely examine how the alliance can bolster its defensive cyber operational capabilities.”
Other key capabilities for the future that require investment, Panetta said, include unmanned systems, surveillance and intelligence platforms, space defense and special operations forces.
“The time has come when nations can share critical capabilities … that enhance [our common] ability to … respond to common threats,” he said.
Panetta said the third pillar for building the transatlantic alliance of the 21st century “must be a determined and proactive effort to build strong partnerships with nations and security organizations in other regions of the world.”
The purpose of such an approach would not be to build a global NATO, Panetta said, but to help other regions provide for their own security and become more capable of partnering with NATO to meet global challenges.
“We see this every day in Afghanistan, where more than 20 non-NATO countries – Australia, Jordan, others – work alongside NATO countries in ISAF,” he said. “And we saw the benefits of this approach in our Libya [operation] as well, where the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council partnered with Europe and North America under a NATO umbrella to protect the Libyan people. The presence of these regional partners has added credibility and capability to the alliance effort, and laid the groundwork for continued cooperation in the future.”
And as NATO confronts other security challenges in Africa and the Middle East, Panetta recommended the establishment of “deeper partnerships with the Arab League [and] the Gulf Cooperation Council and build regular dialogue, exchanges and exercises with African organizations such as the African Union and ECOWAS in Western Africa.”
NATO also must broaden the scope of alliance security discussions beyond European and regional issues, the secretary said.
“In particular, I strongly believe that Europe should join the United States in increasing and deepening our defense engagement with the Asia-Pacific region,” Panetta said.
The U.S. “pivot” to Asia has caused concern in Europe, he acknowledged.
“But today those concerns should be put to rest,” Panetta said. “Global security is not a zero-sum game, but neither are the security commitments of the United States. More importantly, Europeís economic and security future is – much like the United States’ – increasingly tied to Asia. After all, the European Union is Chinaís largest trading partner, [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’] second-largest trading partner, and ranks third and fourth with Japan and South Korea.”
It is in the interests of both the United States and Europe, the secretary said, for NATO to become more outwardly focused and engaged in strengthening Asian security institutions such as ASEAN.
“It is also in our interest to expand defense dialogue and exchanges with a full range of nations including China, where defense spending, according to one estimate, is projected to exceed the largest eight European nations combined, by 2015,” the secretary said.
NATO member nations have a responsibility to demonstrate global leadership and to advance the ideals of peace and prosperity, he said.
“To that end, the United States and Europe should work together and ensure our efforts are coordinated through regular consultations between European and U.S. defense officials focused on Asia-Pacific security issues,” Panetta said. “The bottom line is that Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia, Europe should join it.”
In NATO, the world has a model for how nations can come together to advance global peace and prosperity, he said, but the alliance “must be strong enough and bold enough to change.”
The secretary said after spending this week in Southern Europe, and continuing to deal with budget uncertainty at home, “I am very clear-eyed about the fiscal pressures nations are facing.”
NATO nations are facing a crisis, Panetta said. “But we must never allow any crisis to undermine our collective resolve,” he said.
As he prepares to retire from a career in public service, the secretary said he recognizes a generational shift is underway.
“There will probably not be another U.S. secretary of defense with direct memories of World War II,” he said. “Many of those entering military service today – and many of the young students here in this audience – were born years after the fall of the Berlin wall. Yet across the generations, the transatlantic alliance remains the rock upon which we will build our future security and our future prosperity.”
Panetta said his generation’s mission was to secure a better and safer life for their children.
“That is now your mission and your responsibility,” he told the students in the audience. “History will ultimately define our legacy, for better or for worse. Your job is now to make your own legacy. The future security of nations in the 21st century rests on whether you decide to fight together or fight separately.
That decision rests with all of you.”