NATO soldiers attend a NATO military exercise at Raposa beach, near Setubal, Portugal, October 2015.
Rafael Marchante / REUTERS

As U.S. President Donald Trump has called for détente with Russia, he has consistently championed the need for comprehensive NATO reform. There has since been much political rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic on how to carry out NATO reform, but it is critical that time not be wasted on a circular discussion that primarily pertains to how each alliance member must meet its obligations to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense, as initially pledged at NATO’s 2006 Riga Summit. Instead, the focus for member states should be on ensuring that any changes to NATO are carried out incrementally and in the appropriate sequence in order to meet clear, achievable, and worthwhile policy goals.

Toward that end, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom could collectively match rhetoric on the need for enhanced NATO investments. All three countries could play a leadership role in the North Atlantic region by strengthening their military interoperability at sea and in the skies. The United Kingdom and Norway have both acquired the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35), and Germany appears likely to do so as well, having stopped the production of its F-4F Phantom II fleet in 2013 and suspended the production of Eurofighter jets at least until 2018.

In the likely event that Germany acquires the F-35, it would be uniquely positioned to strengthen multilateral cooperation with the United Kingdom and Norway within the North Atlantic, a  region through which Russian nuclear submarines and warships can the United Kingdom and continental Europe. The purchase would also help subsidize numerous U.S. manufacturing jobs, which the White House would likely consider a gesture of goodwill toward the Trump administration, which campaigned on restoring the U.S. manufacturing base.

Meanwhile, as part of an effort to enhance its deterrence against Russia, Norway is currently upgrading its entire submarine fleet and has selected Germany’s thyssenkrupp for a delivery of four new submarines to replace its current Ula class (also German manufactured). In return, Berlin announced that it intends to partner with Oslo on the development and the acquisition of the Naval Strike Missile, which is manufactured by Kongsberg. Kongsberg, in partnership with Raytheon, is also the manufacturer of the Joint Strike Missile, which is part of the F-35 program.

Altogether, enhanced German-Norwegian-U.K. cooperation at sea and in the skies could help strengthen NATO’s deterrence against Russian nuclear submarines while providing the necessary political space for the remaining NATO countries to upgrade their respective capabilities as part of an effort to strengthen the alliance. The proposed enhanced interoperability among the three countries—in partnership with the United States—would also symbolize that NATO reform is indeed under way, which in turn could have a positive impact on the rest of the alliance as it grapples with pressure on how to identify and ultimately implement concrete policy goals over time.

Enhanced German-Norwegian-U.K. cooperation at sea and in the skies could help strengthen NATO’s deterrence against Russian nuclear submarines.

THE BREXIT FACTOR

After the United Kingdom’s vote in June of last year to leave the European Union, the impact of the decision on European security was unclear. Although the vote for Brexit changes the political aspects of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe, it is unlikely it will precipitate a major shift in London’s defense cooperation with the continent. The simple fact is that the United Kingdom remains a European power, as it has been for centuries. London could demonstrate to its European partners that it remains committed to the continent’s defense by using the Northern Group and the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties as templates for deeper cooperation, especially with Germany and Norway.

Established in 2010, the Northern Group is a multilateral forum through which the United Kingdom can discuss areas of common defense and security interest across the Nordic-Baltic region. The 2010 Lancaster House Treaties were signed by London and Paris to enhance Anglo-French cooperation on the nuclear front, as well as to strengthen joint training exercises and joint procurement programs. Both mechanisms allowed the United Kingdom’s Euroskeptical Conservative Party to demonstrate that bilateral and multilateral defense cooperation can take place outside of the EU.

After France, the United Kingdom enjoys its next closest European defense relationship with Norway. When Russian bombers patrol the North Sea and probe British airspace, for example, Norway is the first NATO member to respond. The two countries have signed a number of defense cooperation agreements since 2010—most recently a November 2016 deal on maritime surveillance cooperation and joint exercises. A Lancaster House–style treaty with Norway seems therefore to be a natural next step.

In the short term, the United Kingdom’s defense relationship with Germany has become more complicated. The tendency to view Anglo-German relations through the prism of Brexit prevents policymakers on both sides from advancing the bilateral relationship in a meaningful way. Hence, once the dust settles from Brexit, London should also aim to deepen defense cooperation with Berlin, since they share a similar outlook on regional security challenges. Both are major parts of NATO’s deterrence against Russia in the Baltics, and both play an important role in the anti–Islamic State (ISIS) coalition through training, logistics, and air surveillance in Iraq and Syria. On the tactical level, the Royal Navy’s newest helicopter, the Wildcat, will fly from a German warship while on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time ever later this year, the symbolism of which cannot be underestimated.

SECURING THE BALTICS

The case for deepening defense cooperation between Berlin, London, and Oslo is not limited to the potential benefits for the North Atlantic region. It would also strengthen NATO’s “eastern flank” as part of an orchestrated effort to enhance security in the fragile region between Estonia and Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave. As part of the current effort, Berlin has taken a leadership role within NATO exercises in eastern Europe. It has set up the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force as the spearhead of the NATO Response Force together with Norway and the Netherlands until the NRF comes into full operation in 2017.

After the United States, Berlin has become the largest overall troop provider operating within the eastern flank and is also providing personnel to smaller permanent regional units such as the NATO Force Integration Units, the Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast in Stettin (which Berlin is jointly running with Poland and Denmark), and the Nordic Defence Cooperation framework. It is participating in and providing “jumping-off points” (by using British facilities) for multilateral, NATO, and bilateral exercises in Poland and the Baltics, as well as developing closer military ties with Norway.

These steps were taken not out of the fear that Russia would have ambitions to provoke an Article 5 scenario (in which an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all) in the Baltics but because Moscow has been substantially successful in carrying out a series of carefully prepared military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria and will not cease its efforts to foment more frozen conflicts, thereby testing NATO’s and the EU’s willingness and capacity to act. In response, Germany has announced an increase in its ongoing efforts to contribute to the NATO deterrence in the Baltics and Poland—a step of more than largely symbolic character, as it will put more German soldiers on the frontline in the event of an armed conflict. From the German point of view, an increase in its maritime presence is the least controversial and most obvious place to start, since the country has the largest naval potential in the region. This is why it has proposed to be the framework nation for multilateral operations in the Baltic Sea by establishing a joint maritime headquarters in Rostock. By doing so, it in sum has been providing the backbone for the successful implementation of NATO’s Wales decisions.

Moscow will not cease its efforts to foment more frozen conflicts, thereby testing NATO’s and the EU’s willingness and capacity to act.

As the most radical and least credible proposal for Europe’s collective security, even the nuclear dimension has to be put in perspective after Trump. Although the few voices in Germany on that issue represent an extreme minority view and a European nuclear deterrent for many seems only to be a myth, one should not rule out that France may seriously consider a formal proposal post-Brexit, provided Berlin is willing to pay its price. Apart from that, the new German white book, a Defense Ministry white paper, notably endorses nuclear deterrence and NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements, reflecting growing concern about Russia’s new nuclear assertiveness. More promising, however, would be to do at least everything possible to include the United Kingdom in any plans for European nuclear deterrence.

THE FUTURE OF EUROPEAN DEFENSE

By stepping up their own contribution to defense and projecting power in their own regional neighborhood, Europeans will be following through on the enhanced burden sharing first requested by the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama and answering the Trump administration’s call for a stronger alliance against international terrorism. 

In the event Trump still concludes that his European allies are not contributing adequately to their own defense, the nexus between Berlin, London, and Oslo—each of which has demonstrated the necessary political will to invest in NATO—would not only provide enhanced stability and predictability in the North Atlantic and NATO’s eastern flank regions in the short term but also secure the necessary political space to implement the required reforms needed to upgrade the alliance as a whole.

Europeans have to make clear that they are willing to provide for any worst-case scenario of a future security architecture without the U.S. umbrella. In other words, engaging and influencing the Trump administration while at the same time preparing Europeans to bolster their own security is exactly the kind of realpolitik that is necessary now.

  • STEFAN FRÖHLICH is a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and Professor of International Politics at the University of Erlangen–Nürnberg.

  • LUKE COFFEY is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

  • SIGURD NEUBAUER is a Nonresident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and works for a U.S. defense consultancy.

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