Allied spending up, Russian weapons on agenda as Esper meets NATO defense ministers

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg answers questions at a news conference at the organization's headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, a day before NATO defense ministers are scheduled to meet there.


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 25, 2019

STUTTGART, Germany — Allies in Europe and Canada boosted defense spending by a combined 3.9% this year, marking the fifth consecutive year defense budgets have increased among non-U.S. NATO allies, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday.

“This is a good trend and we expect this to continue,” Stoltenberg told reporters from his Brussels headquarters.

Eight allies will spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense this year, Stoltenberg said.

Increasing allied spending is a top NATO priority for the Trump administration, which has regularly criticized member states for insufficient defense investments.

In 2014, only three members met the NATO 2% benchmark, but by a 2024 deadline a majority of allies will hit the mark, Stoltenberg said.

The NATO chief’s comments came one day ahead of a meeting of alliance defense ministers, including Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Esper is expected to raise concerns about spending and threats posed by Iran during his first foreign trip as the Pentagon’s top official.

During two days of talks in Brussels, allies are expected to agree on how to counter Russia if Moscow fails to comply with the soon-to-expire Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

The U.S. has given Russia until Aug. 2 to verifiably destroy its SSC-8 missile system, which allies say violates the Cold War-era pact.

“We have given Russia one last chance to come back into compliance with the INF treaty,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told reporters Tuesday. “We can no longer sit back without a defense to the many missiles they are producing and setting up.”

NATO will decide on “next steps,” Stoltenberg said.

“Our response will be defensive, measured and coordinated,” Stoltenberg said. “We will not mirror what Russia does. We do not intend to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.”

However, allies “must ensure that our deterrence and defense remains credible and effective,” he said.

The U.S. and other allies have tried to talk with Russia about taking a “responsible path” on the new missile system for years, Stoltenberg said.

“But unfortunately, we have seen no indication that Russia intends to do so. In fact, it continues to develop and field the new missile,” he said.

Allies also are expected to agree to NATO’s first-ever space policy. The alliance is concerned that space will be used for aggressive purposes by adversaries.

“Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponized,” Stoltenberg said. “Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications. So it is important that we are vigilant and resilient – also in space.”

Twitter: @john_vandiver