October 22, 2020 | Policy Brief

Amid Political Tensions, NATO Remains a Vital Alliance

October 22, 2020 | Policy Brief

Amid Political Tensions, NATO Remains a Vital Alliance

Turkey’s reported live-fire test of its Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system last week further aggravated political fault lines within NATO. Yet despite this provocation and other wide-ranging tensions, NATO continues to demonstrate – through exercises such as Joint Warrior 20-2 – that it remains a vital and credible military alliance.

Over the past several years, there has been no shortage of friction among the 30 sovereign nations of NATO. From disparate defense spending to territorial disputes involving Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean to natural gas pipelines between Germany and Russia, the list of quarrels continues to mount. Turkey’s escalatory action last Friday will only add fuel to this fire. And rightfully so – NATO should be concerned over a member’s drift toward Moscow.

But it would be short-sighted to believe these political differences point to an ineffectual, declining alliance. As General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, previously the top NATO commander, put it in August, “NATO is more important now than it’s ever been since the fall of the [Berlin] wall” in 1989.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has further stated, “Disagreements will always attract more attention than when we agree.” Commensurate with his comments, few seemed to notice the conclusion of Joint Warrior 20-2 last week.

Led by the United Kingdom, the two-week exercise encompassed 13 nations and included a wide array of military assets – 6,000 personnel, 81 aircraft, 28 surface ships, and two submarines. As reported by the U.S. Navy, the engagement boasted “one of the largest concentrations of Allied and partner forces in one integrated training event.”

Joint Warrior 20-2 also marked several notable records: the first time American fifth-generation fighter aircraft deployed aboard a British carrier, the first time U.S. and U.K. F-35Bs trained over U.K. shores as a group, and the largest quantity of F-35Bs at sea.

Comprehensively, the exercise bolstered NATO’s credible combat capability, readiness, and interoperability across participating nations. Further, it demonstrated three strategic benefits of membership regarding “why” the alliance remains essential.

First, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The United States and its allies are markedly more capable when their respective forces are employed together. The sheer number of personnel, aircraft, and sea vessels that participated in Joint Warrior 20-2 illustrates this basic truth. And the employment of modernized military assets by multiple nations further strengthens it.

Second, collective defense costs less. This is intuitively exhibited by the deployment of U.S. and U.K. F-35Bs aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth. In this case, the monetary burden of operating and maintaining a formidable airpower capability at sea is split between two countries. While some argue that many allies are not doing enough on this front, the recent trend in defense spending is promising.

Third, and most importantly, NATO membership upholds Article 5. Reaffirmed by NATO last year – and reinforced by recurring participation in exercises such as Joint Warrior 20-2 – Article 5 is a commitment that “an attack against one Ally shall be considered an attack against us all.” Nothing does more to deter Moscow than knowing that should it engage any member in armed conflict, it would soon be confronted by another 29 nations.

Certainly, these points are not meant to suggest that one ignore instances where allies act incongruently with NATO’s collective interest. Turkey’s testing of the S-400 is a prime example of a serious problem, and it should be met with equally serious consequences.

However, Joint Warrior 20-2 and the strategic benefits exhibited through its execution should underscore that working together results in increased capability, reduced financial burden, and less risk. For these reasons, the United States and its allies should continue navigating through their political differences with a focus on improving readiness and deterring Moscow.

Major Scott Adamson is a visiting military analyst with the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force or any other U.S. government agency. For more analysis from Scott and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy