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3 Hot Issues at NATO Chicago Summit: From Staying in Afghanistan to Cyber Warfare

This weekend, world leaders and defense officials will converge in Chicago for NATO’s bi-annual diplomatic summit. The largest defense meeting of its kind, in attendance are the leaders of three nuclear armed nations, and officials commanding 28 armed forces’, totaling an excess of 3.5 million military personnel. Economic problems or not, NATO allies still carry immense clout in international defense and security.

Unlike 2010’s NATO Lisbon Summit — where a radical “New Strategic Concept” for defining international security threats was presented — this year’s summit will have more modest, but no less important diplomatic priorities. Topping this list will be three areas: the future of Afghanistan, European defense spending, and non-traditional security threats. 

1) Afghanistan

For Afghanistan, the recent announcement that Pakistan may be willing to lift its six-month embargo on NATO over-land supply routes will be a major focus. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan requires the equivalent of 70,000 TEU containers, or 1,470,000 metric tons, of supplies a year. This has posed serious logistical challenges — and costs. (Check out the May 17th DefenceReport podcast for the full original analysis on these points)

President Obama and others will thus be keen to re-open the route, and attempt further rapprochement with Islamabad over Afghan stability. Expect intense discussion with President Asif Ali Zardari, if he shows up. 

Another Afghan priority will be the on-going handover of security to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The standing up of both police and army units is a key pre-requisite to NATO’s exit strategy for 2014, but targets have been lagging in both operational performance, recruitment numbers and training — in no small part due to continued “insider” killings of Western trainers.

Allies will need to re-affirm their commitment to supporting the ANSF.

Another element now coming to the fore will be the funding required to support these forces in the future. Estimates vary, but it is understood that NATO allies are being asked to provide the ANSF with at least $4 billion a year to keep them on their feet post-2014. Negotiations over how to share that load will likely be sensitive.

Yet another issue receiving little attention is how exactly an Afghan army with almost 200,000 personnel will be supplied and equipped in a country with no indigenous defense industrial base.

Behind the scenes, it is certain that NATO allies will be debating which Central Asian rail, road, and air routes could do the job of conveying such supplies — they certainly won’t be shipping all those guns through volatile Pakistan.

2) Europe

European defense spending is another sore point within the alliance — particularly for Washington officials eager to see European allies take up more of the global security load.

That Europe is spending an all-time low on defense is not exactly news, and Allies are still nervously gauging just how close to running out of supplies and aircraft they came during air operations over Libya in 2011.

Summits, however, are usually a time for broad rhetoric and diplomatic back-scratching. European leaders have also been taking enough of a beating at the domestic polls, with numerous governments falling in the past months.

Recently elected French President Hollande has already raised tensions within the alliance, by promising to withdraw from NATO operations in Afghanistan earlier then previously planned.

So, U.S. officials are likely to pull their punches on criticizing European defense, if possible. Instead, expect a great deal of trumpeting of ”Smart Defence,” NATO’s equipment sharing initiative.

Though progress has been slow, there is cautious optimism that this might help soften the blow to military capabilities wrought by on-going and deep European budget cuts. America and NATO officials will want to play this angle, rather than launch a Bob-Gateseque tirade against Allies — at least for now.

3) Cyber Defense, Piracy, Terrorism

Finally, Chicago offers the alliance the opportunity to gauge progress in various non-traditional security policy areas.

One on-going issue is NATO’s role within global cyber-defense and security. Lisbon in 2010 saw NATO take on support functions for securing critical ICT command and control systems within the alliance for the first time. Since then, research and information sharing has escalated in this area.

Whilst such cyber issues are certainly not going away, allies may need to discuss potential limitations in this area at Chicago.

Today, everyone from the European Union to the OSCE is getting in on the cyber-security act. NATO, formerly taking somewhat of a lead, now needs to identify more precisely which roles it will — and will not — execute in this area, especially during a crisis. NATO may announce a more modest vision of its cyber role soon.

Alongside this, look out for other non-traditional threats which could receive some attention. NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) branch in particular has been focusing on a series of so-called “Hybrid” security threats.

Characterized as actors which employ both conventional (armed force) and non-conventional (piracy, terrorism, cyber etc.) in a coordinated campaign, ACT wants allies to devote policy attention to adversaries in this area — including groups such as Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants. Focus in this area has been growing in alliance circles recently.

In the area of counter-terrorism, NATO has a number of upcoming initiatives, notably an explosives detection system for urban transport environments, which will soon be tested on the Paris and Moscow Metros. This too could be an easy “win” for NATO to sell at the summit.  

The upcoming gathering will undoubtedly be over-shadowed by talk of fiscal austerity. However, these three policy areas are high on the alliance’s agenda, and will be the ones to watch at Chicago.

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