Nato ministers agree to 'cut fat'
Nato defence ministers on Thursday (14 October) agreed to plans put forward by secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen to "cut fat" by reducing the number of headquarters and staff. The money saved is to be used for new capabilities such as cyber defence and an anti-ballistic missile shield.
Under Mr Rasmussen's blueprint, the number of headquarters will be reduced from 11 to seven and the staff employed there will shrink from 13,000 to 9,000. In addition, out of the 14 existing Nato agencies, the alliance is to keep just three, focusing on three "pillars": acquisitions, support and communications.
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The final decision will be taken by Nato leaders at a summit in Lisbon next month. But the more difficult discussion about which countries will have to give up Nato command structures will not take place until next year. Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and the US each host one or several headquarters and command centres.
It is unclear which of the over 20-odd command structures are considered as "headquarters" to be scrapped. When speaking to journalists, French defence minister Herve Morin reportedly got lost in counting how many there are and to which number they will be reduced to.
Apart from the prestige of having a Nato base, member states also have financial reasons not to give them up. Under Nato budgetary rules, they can deduct staff and headquarters expenses from the national contribution to the Nato budget.
Mr Rasmussen admitted that the "geographical" decisions are a "challenge not to be underestimated." But he was confident that ultimately states will agree.
"I know how difficult these decisions are, when it comes to the geographical relocation of institutions, but the good news is we have consensus on the 'generic model,' on how the command structure should ideally look like and based on the discussions today I am optimistic we'll succeed in the geographical footprint as well."
The lean 57-year old Danish politician, who advertises his jogging and hiking exertions on his Facebook page, repeatedly used the metaphor of "cutting fat" and "building muscle" in reference to defence spending.
When asked about how Britain's announced cuts in the defence budget will affect the alliance, Mr Rasmussen gave the example of the Czech Republic, which is upping its contribution in Afghanistan despite "drastic cuts in public spending."
"This shows it is possible to cut fat while building muscle," Mr Rasmussen said.
Speaking to journalists on the margins of the meeting, Belgian defence minister Pieter De Crem said that his government "agrees with the secretary general." But he stressed that the Nato headquarters in Brussels and the command structures in Mons will not be affected.
The agreement on cuts comes after defence ministers in February decided to fill a budget deficit of €640 million in the alliance's investment pot for this year.
US defence secretary Robert Gates back then complained about the "Cold War-era structures" which are too heavy and which need to be streamlined.
The Thursday meeting, dubbed "the Octoberfest ministerial" because it gathered for the first time both defence and foreign ministers from Nato's 28 member states, is also set to hold first discussions on Nato's new strategic concept which will be adopted in November.
Missile defence, protection from cyber attacks and reaching out to Russia and Asian partners involved in the Afghan war are also on the agenda. No concrete decisions are expected to be made on the strategic plan, however.