Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made several claims regarding the utility of NATO in relation to its costs.
This is a strange claim indeed.
While Trump has said he would through the sheer will of his personality achieve Defense Department reform, which was tried and failed by the last two presidents, simultaneously increasing the size of the military across the board seems to indicate the result would be an increased military budget.
Regardless of the hypothetical effects on defense spending of a Trump administration, and the missing logic as to why the United States would need a larger military when it would be disengaging from the world, accurately assessing how much the American contribution to European defense actually costs would be a worth while endeavor.
Donald Trump has not taken the time to do this.
First, lets look at the easiest metric to measure American contributions to NATO, the direct funding of the alliance.
According to the funding page of NATO’s website, direct funding for the alliance is decided “in accordance with an agreed cost-sharing formula based on Gross National Income” of which the United States has agreed to foot 22.1446% of the bill.
So what is the grand total of NATO’s budget? The budget is divided into three sectors: civil, military, and the NATO Security Investment Programme (NSIP).
The civil budget broadly covers both PR and diplomacy. The military budget provides funding for staff colleges, communally owned assets like deployable radar, and administrative functions.
The NSIP provides for constructing various military assets which could not be reasonably funded by national defense budgets, including harbors and runways.
The budgets set forth in June of 2015 indicate that the civil budget is about €222 million ($251 million), the military budget at €1.16 billion ($1.31 billion), and the NSIP at €690 million ($780 million).
Adding these all together we get a total budget of about €2.03 billion ($230 billion). Already this is a very small number in terms of US spending, but the US only foots a little over one fifth of this, which comes out at around $500 million.
In contrast, Mr Trump has claimed that his border wall would cost in the range of $8 billion, not including maintenance.
This claim is also largely understood to be underselling the true cost for a fixed fortification, of which his apparent idol General Patton is noted as remarking on such structures as a “monument to the stupidity of man”.
Regardless, it seems that between the build up within United States, and the $8+ billion ineffectual wall, the United States’ $500 million to NATO seems downright microscopic.
Perhaps then Mr. Trump is referring to the nearly $600 billion US defense budget, which outspends the next few countries combined, including a number of allies.
So this must be what Mr. Trump is referring to, right? The US spends close to as much as the rest of the alliance, therefore the United States is being ripped off.
This is certainly a reasonable viewpoint, if you consider the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii, United States Forces Korea (USFK), or the US 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan as contributing to European defense.
While these assets might be used in a large conflict in Europe, if it were to last long enough, they are of little deterrent value in the Pacific.
A Reasonable appraisal of the American footprint in Europe will look at assets in or around Europe.
Using the Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) cost as a rough average, we can begin the calculate the costs of the US Army in Europe. At 16 brigades, and our rough approximation of $285 million for full readiness over a year, leaves us $4.56 Billion. Note we are making the annual cost of the European Dental Command as expensive as a combat unit.
The one battalion of US marines in Europe can also be easily factored in, at $55 million.
The US Air Force combines its commands in Europe and Africa. As a result we will count Air Force assets in Djibouti in addition to Europe.
This gives us 26 squadrons, which for simplicity’s sake we will count universally as F-16s, despite Pavehawks being less expensive to fly, and F-15s slightly more expensive to fly. Our DoD numbers give us $135 million per year, resulting in annually $3.51 billion per year.
This number may be fudged based on the limited information available on maintenance costs for various aircraft, but will do well as a stand in for our purposes of a rough estimate.
The cost of US Navy forces is even less readily available The Center for New American Security claims that a Carrier group costs $6.5 million per day to operate, which comes out at about $2.37 billion per year.
The US Navy had twelve surface ships in the Mediterranean in October of 2015, which for our purposes we will equate to two Carrier groups, which include two attack subs, four to six surface ships, plus an aircraft carrier with a compliment of aircraft.
The cost for our substitution is $4.74 billion.
The total cost of American assets in europe is about $13.36 billion per year.
That includes all the indirect costs of European defense, and direct NATO funding. This is of course not the exact value.
This is a rough estimate through open source channels that is willing to substitute jets for helicopters, and two carrier groups for a dozen surface ships.
That’s a small chunk of the overall defense budget, that is of significant strategic value. For reference, that’s in the ballpark of Italy’s contribution to European defense, and less than half of much maligned Germany’s contribution.
The Americans are not being taken for a ride by NATO.
This begs the question; why is the presumptive Republican nominee not able to have someone crunch publicly available numbers to assess the bargain price that the United States buys a Europe whole free and at peace for?
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Cover Photo Credit: Holger Vaga/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)