Article written by Alex Calvo, Expert in defense and security in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region.

With the Ukraine burning, the Cold War making a comeback, and the South China Sea’s tinderbox at risk of exploding at any time, the last thing the Pentagon needs is trouble in NATO’s South-Western flank. To the contrary, the United States and the Atlantic Alliance need serious and reliable partners throughout the Iberian peninsula; partners committed not only to the security of their own territory and population, but to that of their allies. NATO needs net security contributors.

Three developments last week confirm that Catalonia has every intention to be all of these things, as well as a tough partner for the tough times ahead. First, President Mas confirmed Catalonia’s commitment to NATO. Second, the Military Studies Society (Societat d’Estudis Militars, or SEM) published a report on defense budgets that recommends independent Catalonia invest 2 percent of her GDP on defense, in accordance with NATO guidelines, while emphasizing the proper maintenance and upgrade of military equipment to ensure it is fully operational and deployable world-wide. Finally, the think-tank CIDOB (Barcelona Center for International Affairs, originally known as Centre d’Informació i Documentació Internacionals a Barcelona) held a roundtable on defense policy where additional security issues were discussed in detail.

The first move took place on the morning of Wednesday 3 June, when President Artur Mas stated in Parliament that Catalonia would be seeking direct membership in NATO. While Catalonia’s leader had already indicated this on previous occasions, saying so in Parliament provided some added solemnity to the pledge. In answer to a question from Spanish Loyalist Miquel Iceta regarding Catalan membership in the European Union, Mas replied that not only would Catalonia be part of the EU, but that the newly-independent country would seek direct NATO membership.

Hours after Mas’s statement on NATO membership, the Military Studies Society (SEM) published an unofficial white paper on defense budgets, English version available here. The white paper lays down a set of serious, realistic budgetary guidelines for independent Catalonia, based on the experience of our NATO allies. The text notes that operations (expenditures covering costs for deployed operations outside member state’s territory) and equipment maintenance have “been a problem common to many Western armed forces” due to a lack of “available resources in this area” of maintenance, prompted by the “excessive costs of acquisition programs,” that is, the initial cost of purchasing equipment. Just to give an example, the German deployment in Afghanistan has been plagued by equipment failures, with an official report on the military last year explaining that “only 42 of Germany’s 109 Eurofighters are available for immediate use because of fuselage defects. The navy faces similar problems with only 4 of its 22 Sea Lynx helicopters and 3 of its 21 Sea Kings currently operational.” The European Defense Agency defines as “Operation and Maintenance (O&M) expenditure: covers O&M (spare parts and supplies) of major equipment, other equipment and supplies, and costs related to maintaining utilities and infrastructure”.

The white paper stresses that “The Catalan Defence Forces (CDF) cannot make these mistakes” and recommends that “the percentage of the defense budget devoted to operations and maintenance should be between 35 and 40 percent. In the case of Spain, a study on “Southern Europe Defence in Times of Austerity” noted that “The Spanish military industrial base ranks tenth in the world and sixth in Europe thanks in part to its stake in EADS, one of the leading global aircraft companies. This means that any major cut in military investment projects in Italy and Spain directly affects their national economies and aggravates the domestic economic crisis environment. This disparity could explain why the Spanish and Italian governments chose to primarily reduce personnel and operations/maintenance programmes rather than investment programmes, whereas the Portuguese and Greek governments reduced defense expenditures across the board.” Those are cases of the tail wagging the dog which the SEM report is keen to prevent. Unless enough funds are spent on operations and maintenance, a large gap is likely to emerge between nominal (that is, on paper) and real, deployable capabilities. It is the latter that Washington is interested in when it comes to assembling coalitions. As noted in a 1985 report by the US Congressional Budget Office, “At the heart of such ‘readiness-related’ spending are the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) appropriations of the military service.” However, as openly admitted by the European Parliament’s Library in its 2013 briefing on “NATO in the aftermath of the financial crisis,” “European allies total 2.3 million military personnel, but only a small proportion of them are available for rapid deployment, or even suited for expeditionary missions outside Europe.”

Concerning personnel, the document emphasizes the need for ample, flexible, reserve forces such as those of Denmark and Norway.

Following the end of the Cold War, there has been a tendency to transform forces devoted to territorial defense (that is, to a conflict in Central Europe) into projectable forces, that is military forces that can be deployed and sustained anywhere in the world. The problem is that in many European countries defense budgets have been dropping at a faster rate than the volume of forces was being cut, prompting personnel costs to eat up a disproportionately large portion of defense spending. Denmark is seen by the Catalan national defense community as an example of a country that has been able to transform her military into a projectable force. Norway did not go so far along this path, since from a practical perspective her geo-strategic scenario had not changed that much. With Russia on her northern border, Norway could not rule out a territorial defense role for her military. However, both countries are very much appreciated within NATO. In 2013 consulting firm McKinsey praised Denmark’s military reorganization “from 2005 to 2009 to move from a static, defensive posture to one that could support expeditionary missions abroad,” stressing that “The transformation reduced support costs by a third, shifting the balance between spending on operational activities and spending on support functions from 40–60 before the transformation to 60–40 after it.”

The text considers that personnel should absorb “between 30 and 35 percent” of defense spending.  This percentage is lower than that found among many allies, with, for example, the Pentagon’s FY 2015 requested compensation costs amounting to “$246 billion, or about 50% of its total base budget,” to which one should add “an additional $47.6 billion and $70 billion — principally in the O&M request — for military benefits and civilian pay and benefits, respectively.” An official overview of the Pentagon’s FY 2016 also confirms that “personnel costs, including military pay and allowances, military health care, civilian pay, and family support, encompass nearly half of the Department’s budget.” In the case of the United Kingdom, on the other hand, “little more than 30% is spent on personnel.” For Spain personal costs “in 2011 represented 65% of military expenditures.”

With regard to investment, the white paper underlines that it is a system’s “costs of its whole life cycle” and not just initial acquisition costs that must be taken into account, while reminding readers that “maintenance and upgrades … generates jobs.”

Using the well-respected models of the defense forces of Norway and Denmark, the white paper proposes best-in-practice budgeting that looks at the entire costs of adopted systems, not just the initial purchase price. It would also support a military made up of professionals who are more highly compensated than elsewhere in NATO.

The section devoted to infrastructure acknowledges that few military or dual-use facilities will be inherited, meaning a major effort will have to be undertaken. Catalonia’s needs include a training range suitable for all sorts of Army units, likely to be built in the Lleida Plain area, and/or Noguera County, in the West. Concerning the Air Force, the text defends Alguaire Airport, a clearly underutilized infrastructure, while not ruling out refurbishing airports such as Reus, Girona, and Odena. When discussing the Catalan Navy the white paper openly acknowledges that “the void concerning infrastructures is desolating,” while underlining Palamos and Vilanova i la Geltru as the facilities most easy to adapt and expand, being middle-size ports with already significant traffic volumes and easier to protect, thanks to their dimensions.

The text suggests two five-year periods to reconstruct the Armed Forces, with the ultimate goal of investing 2 percent of Catalonia’s GDP on defense, in line with NATO guidelines. The white paper concludes stressing that the era of “low cost” defense budgets in the Old Continent is coming to a close, explaining that “If Europe has been able to afford them since the end of the Cold War, it is because the United States made up for them, but this is already over.” Investing 2 percent of the GDP on defense is, according to the text, necessary not only to provide the necessary deterrence and stimulate the economy and employment, but should also enable Catalonia “to punch above our weight,” adding that “If we really want to be somebody in the international arena, tweets and likes are of little use, instead we must be ready to do what it takes.”

President Mas’ parliamentary statement on direct NATO membership, and the SEM’s defense budget white paper, provided the perfect backdrop to the week’s third significant move: a defense policy roundtable at Barcelona-based think-tank CIDOB. Under the title “New states and security and defense policy,” this took place the following day, Thursday 4 June, which happened to be the Flag Day of the Finnish Defense Forces (commemorating the birthday of Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim), perhaps a thinly-disguised nod to one of the countries whose defense policies are being carefully followed by Catalonia’s national security community. After an introduction by the event’s organizer and moderator, CIDOB researcher Marc Gafarot, Barcelona University Professor F. Xavier Hernandez Cardona and Nagoya University Guest Professor Alex Calvo spoke.

Hernandez Cardona, an expert in military history and author of a four-volume military history of Catalonia, focused on the country’s strong record in this area. After pulling no punches by stressing that “a state without an army is like a car without wheels” and calling on Catalans to “recover our military culture,” he provided the audience with an outline of some of Catalonia’s military episodes and institutions.

Calvo, an expert in defense issues in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, focused on the challenges any new state faced when ensuring the security of its own territory and population, plus its contribution to that of Allies, partners, and the wider international community. He explained that in any such scenario the international community would be wondering whether the combined capabilities and commitment of the two daughter states would be greater or smaller than that of the previously existing mother state. In the case of Catalonia, he stressed how past experience in the security arena contributed to the country’s credibility when it came to explaining future defense policy to partners and Allies. In particular he referred to the management of prisons, which in the 1980s the Generalitat (Catalan Government) had demanded and secured from Madrid, happy for once to get rid of a hot potato. The only autonomous region in Spain to have been in charge of this sensitive area over the last three decades, this proved how Catalonia was not at all shy when it came to the security arena. He noted that this had not gone unnoticed abroad, with US think-tank Atlantic Council comparing the country’s preliminary defense planning favorably with that by Scotland in the run up to the latter’s referendum. Writing on “The Military Implications of Scottish and Catalonian Secession,” James Hasik, senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, noted that “Scotland will free-ride in the Atlantic without sustained investment, but Catalonian maritime specialization would be welcome in the Mediterranean,” appreciating Catalonia’s “valuable and refreshing view of specialization in collective defense: build a navy that is comparatively focused on influencing events ashore” and adding that “By de-emphasizing the military forces that any landlocked country will have, and instead steering investments towards those it is comparatively positioned to provide, Catalonia could punch above its weight in European political affairs.”

Calvo also explained how recovering the defense industry was an essential component of Catalonia’s re-industrialization efforts, and a linchpin of the fight against unemployment and social exclusion. Successive Spanish governments have vetoed the industry’s development in Catalonia, despite a long-standing tradition explained by Professor Hernandez Cardona and the close proximity to the main French air-space cluster. He also explained how the reserve and militia forces could contribute to social cohesion, including the integration of immigrants, and underlined how a strategic airlift capacity was essential not only for Catalonia’s military but also for the country’s myriad NGOs active in international humanitarian assistance.

The roundtable attracted many people, who filled the hall, forcing CIDOB to close registration in advance. Participants comprised a wide range of profiles, including a number of experts. Among them, Jihadism expert Jofre Montoto, who commented on this threat, SEM board members, a fellow of the Guild of Industrial Engineers, plus other members of the national security community. Montoto explained that “Jihadism is an example of global risks” and that a state needs military force not only to protect itself but also to “defend national interests.” A question by former Lleida Mayor Manel Oronich prompted a discussion of Alguaire Airport as a key dual-use facility and one of the future mainstays of the Catalan Air Force. A SEM analyst emphasized that Catalonia was likely to be called to deploy air assets in the Baltic and Far North, given the current situation, and that the Ukrainian conflict was a reminder of the need to develop not only a counterinsurgency capability but also conventional forces.

Catalonia cannot be a country that simply leases bases to others for its protection. Instead, Catalan leaders are making plans to become a serious and reliable security partner for NATO, one committed not only to the security of its own territory and population, but also to that of its allies. It could not be otherwise, as freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin.

Alex Calvo

Expert in defense and security in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region

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