Amid a sense of surprise and, in many quarters, shock at the result of the US presidential election and the UK’s referendum to leave the EU, there was one constant in 2016 – that the global security environment remained as unremittingly bleak as before.

Challenges to defence cooperation

Amid a sense of surprise and, in many quarters, shock at the result of the US presidential election and the UK’s referendum to leave the EU, there was one constant in 2016 – that the global security environment remained as unremittingly bleak as before. Perhaps the only bright spot of note was the peace accord in Colombia.

Many current security challenges have endured for years; most are transnational in impact. These may include real or perceived threats from non-state actors or newly assertive states to access to the global commons; they may stem from the proliferation of defence technology or military know-how, or the use of cyber power by state and non-state actors; they also include climate change and natural disasters and may derive from the increasing pace of technological and social change. Within this context, newly assertive states – particularly Russia but also including China and, recently, some Gulf states – continue to flex, and in some cases use their military muscle. This not only raises the risk of heightened international tension but also of possible military confrontation.

Wars in Syria and Yemen, hugely damaging to these countries’ populations, infrastructure and futures, grind on remorselessly. In Yemen, Gulf states remain confronted by formidable adversaries with still-potent capabilities. Conflict continues on Europe’s doorstep, with Ukraine’s east still witnessing daily combat. Russia’s military activity has prompted modest hikes in NATO defence budgets and, for the Alliance’s larger states, a renewed focus on conventional-combat capabilities and deterrence. In the Asia-Pacific region, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and further, more complex missile tests in 2016.

In Asia, the dominant theme in defence policymaking is developing greater capacity for conventional warfare. Many military budgets continue to rise, with average real-terms growth of 5.8% during 2014–16. These increases have fuelled military-modernisation programmes designed to recapitalise ageing inventories and respond to the growing capabilities of potential adversaries. Advanced weapons systems are also becoming more widespread, ranging from anti-ship missiles to modern air- and coastal-defence systems. The traditional dominance of Western states in naval fleet size and tonnage is being eroded, and more nations in the Asia-Pacific are introducing vessels of 9,500 tonnes or larger. China has also been strengthening its capacity to project military power into the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Island-building activities continue in the South China Sea, but the most extensive and far-reaching change has been the overhaul to the PLA’s organisational structure, followed by the transition from seven ‘military regions’ to five ‘theatre commands’.

For Russia, the overt display of its military capability continues to be a key objective of its operations in Syria. As before, it still uses Syria as a test-bed for its military systems. In 2016, its continued employment of precise weapons was notable. The Kh-101 cruise missile was observed being launched for the first time from the Tu-95 strategic bomber. Economic problems have led Moscow to delay or postpone some of its military procurements. Shipbuilding plans may have slowed, but Russia’s ambition to equip an increasing number of naval platforms – including a new icebreaker – with power-projection capabilities such as the Kalibr cruise missile is important. Notwithstanding the concerns of NATO’s eastern member states, Russia’s most significant troop movements have related to strengthening its military presence on the border with Ukraine – presumably to deter Kiev from attempting to impose a military solution in its east.

A key lesson for Russia from the use of force in both Ukraine and Syria is that these actions have brought Moscow back to the diplomatic top table. For Moscow, this underscored the utility of military force as a coercive tool. The messaging apparent in its employment of military power, meanwhile, met its narrative of a once-again powerful state able to deploy capabilities previously only held by the West. One concern for the international community lies in how this attitude towards the use of force may be perceived by other states, and whether it may embolden them to deploy military force. There is also a risk for the West in terms of whether its responses are sufficiently firm or united.

Russia’s various military activities sustained a sense of heightened insecurity across Europe during 2016. Successful Islamist terrorist attacks on the continent were further reminders of vulnerability to instability originating in Europe’s southern and southeastern margins. The flow of refugees and other migrants into Europe only slowed in 2016. Pressure on receiving countries to settle and integrate those arrivals remained high, while some European nations’ military forces continued to deploy to tackle illegal migration and rescue those at risk. These missions, on some of Europe’s borders and in the Mediterranean Sea, and the refugee crisis, further energised the rhetoric of nationalist politicians in Europe.

The renaissance of populist politics in the West, and the rise of ‘insurgent’ political movements harnessing economic and political discontent, have rocked political orthodoxies and challenge cooperative approaches to security and military policy. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election was the biggest challenge to prevailing political attitudes, although a similar populist and rhetoric-heavy platform had upset received wisdom earlier in the year in the UK (with the ‘Brexit’ referendum), while the populist Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in May after an equally rhetoric-heavy campaign. In 2017, other politicians will face an increased challenge from political groups and movements that have in some cases questioned the benefits from and desirability of closer international cooperation. Indeed, the risk is that cooperative approaches to security and military policy may be imperilled both by emerging policy prescriptions and the rhetoric employed during election campaigns. Even if this tone is subsequently moderated, it can erode the consistency and clarity of political-military messaging that is important for credible and effective deterrence. The precise effect of this rhetoric remains unclear. For example, after his election Donald Trump stressed the importance of NATO, rather than – as he did during the campaign – focusing on some allies’ failure to meet the aim to spend 2% of GDP on defence. However, lingering uncertainties could erode Alliance cohesion, not least by introducing doubts over future US commitment to NATO’s Article 5 guarantee; they may also embolden potential adversaries and damage strategic stability.

These worries might, however, improve European states’ focus on defence, including on spending. However, even if Europe spends more, it needs to spend more smartly: boosting R&D and equipment spending rather than on personnel and pensions, and driving industrial collaboration, would be more useful than simply aiming to meet targets. They may also finally propel closer bilateral cooperation between European states, and multilateral cooperation between the EU and NATO, where there is a chance now for more tangible progress. Brexit has been followed by a growing momentum among other EU members to improve defence cooperation among themselves, and between the EU and NATO. Even post-Brexit, of course, the UK will still be able to play a part in EU-level security structures, if it negotiates an agreement. London might be interested in maintaining access to EU-wide collaborative science and technology developments, not least in light of the European Commission’s plan, as part of the November 2016 European Defence Action Plan (EDAP), to boost defence procurement and, notably, establish a European Defence Fund for defence technology and equipment R&D.

Coordination and cooperation can drive financial efficien­cies, and can also have tangible security benefits. Cohesive responses to Russia’s challenge are currently the preference for the West, including the EU and NATO. Sanctions have become an effective vehicle by which this cooperation delivers real effect. International cooperation after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to a range of sanctions on Moscow, and these are biting. This, and other sanctions regimes involved strenuous international negotiation and concerted political traction. Above all, they required patience, and cooperation between states, against a backdrop of understanding that there was common benefit from such cooperation.

Indeed, with security challenges increasingly global in cause and effect, in a world interconnected by the movement of people, trade and technology and facing common environmental challenges including from climate change and natural disasters, isolation from the effects of global-security challenges is impossible. The responses required to address current and future security challenges most effectively are similarly complex; they are very often best conceived and executed with partners. Doing so cleverly can better distribute the financial, material and political resources necessary to tackle these tasks comprehensively. This has long been NATO’s approach. Years of close military cooperation have led to real military benefits. NATO-enabled cooperation has helped Western air forces to deploy and operate together rapidly, generating more effect than if they were to deploy independently. NATO has invoked its Article 5 collective-defence pledge only once, to assist the US after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While much cooperation now still relates to the ongoing counter-terror struggle (as in Syria and Iraq), NATO also embarked on a significant plan to boost its forward presence in Eastern Europe in order to reassure nervous allies and insert a more credible deterrent to Russia, once it became clear that the old plan to rapidly reinforce allies faced a challenge from Russia’s capabilities in the region. Western states, and NATO, also realise that they need to sharpen focus on the potential for conventional combat with technologically advanced adversaries. There are now questions about whether European troop reductions went too far, and more debates about whether to reintroduce conscription.

Globally, military modernisation drives continue, with advanced capabilities more widespread. In the West there has been renewed focus on how to use advanced capability developments and adaptability and innovation to maintain military-technological advantage. The EU’s EDAP is one way of trying to stimulate better results in this area: Europe’s defence R&D has long been fragmented with only minimal coordination and collaboration. But these initiatives will be mirrored elsewhere. China, for instance, is carefully watching the US Third Offset Strategy. This drive for asymmetric technology-advantage risks becoming increasingly costly for Western states; as a result, defence establishments are keen to leverage capabilities and broader lessons developed in the civilian sector.

Despite a widespread political reaction against some of the social and economic ramifications of globalisation, the interrelation between rapid environmental and societal changes, coupled with the acceleration in economic interrelationships and technology development, means that there may be in future more, and more complex, security threats, not fewer. In combination, they mean that the world will continue to ‘shrink’ and as such it is more important to avoid retreat into military and defence-industrial nationalism.

It should not be necessary to list the benefits of economic, political and military cooperation. Tackling issues at source before they become crises; helping to build resilience in unstable areas; and developing local economies and security capacities all take patient collaboration. Meanwhile, greater cooperation boosts confidence and transparency between allies and potential adversaries, and can improve capability development and operations. These, in turn, can show the practical benefits of a cohesive political approach. Although NATO, for instance, has faced institutional challenges before – such as France’s decision to leave the Alliance’s integrated command structures in 1966 – the internal and external challenges to cohesion and cooperation are perhaps now as great as, if not greater than, at any time in the recent past.

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