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NATO Generosity Betrays Institutional Obsolescence

NATO expansion has failed to bring modernization and integration to the armed forces of member countries.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken
(Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Over a year into the Ukrainian war, the continuation of the already-extensive NATO support now focuses on whether to provide military aircraft. Poland has agreed to transfer aircraft; others have signaled their willingness to do so as well. NATO leaders have touted their substantial military support to Ukraine as evidence the alliance remains integral to European security. In truth, NATO largesse unmasks a hollow force.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, American assistance has totaled approximately $31.7 billion as of February 27. Corresponding military contributions from twenty-seven allies through January 2023 have totaled approximately $17.7 billion. Throughout 2022, allied military equipment transfers consisted primarily of anti-armor and anti-air systems

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Over the course of the year, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky publicly called for the transfer of tanks. In January, after months of debate, Germany and the United States finally agreed to transfer Leopard 2 tanks and Abrams tanks, respectively.

Zelensky is now requesting modern fighter aircraft, but the U.S. has declined such requests out of concern that the step would further escalate tensions with Russia.

But allies have been more receptive. In March, Poland announced it would transfer four fighter jets to Ukraine, followed the next day by Slovakia. Other potential suppliers include France, Sweden, and the U.K.

Bulgaria, a stalwart NATO ally for the past two decades, emphatically said no. So why has Bulgaria said no when Poland has said yes?

The divergent decisions reflect a persistent defect in the alliance—not the perennial imbalance in defense spending but antiquated arsenals.

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Incomplete Modernization

The Polish Air Force totals ninety-one combat aircraft; transferring four fighter jets would be a loss of less than one-twentieth of its air force. Furthermore, the planes to be transferred are MiG-29s, a 1980s Russian-designed aircraft. And one-third of Poland's inventory are F-16Cs. The impact on Polish capabilities is minimal.

In stark contrast, the Bulgarian Air Force possesses only seventeen combat aircraft, none of which are modern Western fighter jets. Transferring the same number of aircraft would leave Bulgaria with only seven fighters, all of which are also older Russian-designed airframes.

Twenty-four years have passed since Poland joined NATO and nineteen years since Bulgaria joined; shouldn't these two states’ air forces have modernized by 2023?

Unfortunately, the reality is that none of the Eastern European air forces have.

According to open-source data published by FlightGlobal, the total number of combat fighter jets, combat helicopters, and special mission aircraft (electronic warfare, reconnaissance) across all fourteen new members' air forces was 789 in 2013, the year before the first Ukrainian crisis erupted. By 2022, the total decreased to 683. During this time, the ratio between Soviet/Russian aircraft and Western aircraft shifted from 61-36 percent to 52-45 percent. Aircraft manufactured by domestic firms constituted the remainder.

However, this minimal progress was concentrated in only two members: Poland and Romania. In Poland's case, the Soviet/Russian aircraft in its inventory were simply retired. It was only the changes in Romania’s small air force—only thirty aircraft—that marked a significant improvement.

Unsurprisingly, the pervasiveness of Soviet/Russian-designed systems in Eastern European air forces extends to the tanks and combat helicopters to be transferred as well.

All the tanks donated to Ukraine are variants of the T-72, a family of Soviet/Russian main battle tanks that first entered production in 1971. The donated combat helicopters are attack and transport versions of "Mi" line Soviet/Russian helicopters. Remarkably, the five countries pledging helicopters only possess seventy-four such aircraft in total. In the case of two countries, Latvia and Lithuania, the planned donations would deplete their entire inventory.

How can countries with small militaries afford to make such contributions? Easily, because they are going to be made whole by the U.S. and E.U.

Among the donors, Croatia, North Macedonia, and Slovakia have all been queued for financial or materiel compensation. Slovakia, in particular, will benefit significantly. For its transfer of air-defense systems and armored infantry vehicles, Slovakia will receive German tanks as well as a discount for an American arms package of attack helicopters and missiles. When the arms package discount is combined with expected remuneration, Slovakia will receive approximately $989 million in total.

In truth, the Eastern European allies are not so much donating equipment as they are being compensated for purging their arsenals. American taxpayers are now in the unique position of paying European countries to procure and purge aircraft.

Caveated From the Beginning

When NATO first broached enlargement, congressional oversight agencies repeatedly warned that significant challenges accompanied the accession of former Warsaw Pact members into the alliance. Chief among them were implementation costs and modernization.

In 1997, the Clinton Administration published an estimate stating the cost of enlargement would range from $27 billion to $35 billion from 1997 through 2009. The Government Accountability Office, however, characterized the estimate as "notional," because it lacked supporting data.

The Congressional Budget Office, in contrast, produced a conspicuously higher estimate—$61–125 billion through 2010—and warned attaining the requisite resources "might be manageable, but only if" the new members bore a substantial portion of the costs, an unrealistic expectation given their communism-ravaged economies.

The Congressional Research Service similarly noted the administration's cost estimates expected new members to prioritize enhancing interoperability and modernizing their militaries and that accomplishing both would cost only between $800 million and $1 billion annually, or a total of $10–13 billion. Again, these costs were to be assumed by the new members since "many of these measures would [have been] undertaken with or without expansion."

Nevertheless, expansion did occur and, as of 2023, interoperability and modernization failed to be undertaken—across the entire alliance.

In 2020, Rand examined the capability and readiness of European air forces for a high-intensity conflict and found significant weaknesses. 

Rand reported that the efficacy of European air forces would be limited because, of the 1,900 combat aircraft in allied fleets, less than one hundred were fifth generation. Furthermore, European air forces were in a low state of readiness because most countries were maintaining almost half of their existing fleets at only mission-capable status. This finding is more discouraging when one considers the air forces examined in the study: those of twelve pre-enlargement members, including France, Germany, and the U.K.

If these long-standing members lack the requisite capabilities and readiness, what can be expected of Eastern European air forces that are smaller and have not fully modernized?

Amusingly, Rand asserted that acquisition of the F-35 would be integral to enhancing these capabilities in a high-intensity conflict, noting that between 300 and 400 F-35s will be stationed in Europe by 2030.

However, problems associated with the gold-plated F-35 have been legion, and the F-35 program manager testified in March that only 53 percent of the 564 F-35s in America’s fleet were mission-capable and only 29 percent were fully mission-capable.

Ultimately, the persistence of antiquated aircraft encapsulates the inconsequence of an institution that has outlived its original purpose.