In a time of tightening budgets, uncertain economic recovery/growth and the U.S. congressional kindergarten, it is becoming harder to justify keeping defense spending constant while cutting other government services that may arguable aid the economic recovery. This is not a problem unique to the U.S., other NATO members like the UK, France etc. are having similar issues at home. While the U.S. share of NATO spending increased from 63% to 72% since 2001, most other NATO members reduced their budgets. Furthermore, at some occasions Robert Gates questioned NATOs longterm relevance, if other member states were to continue to cut or fail to increase their proportional contributions. Current target defense spending is set at 2% of GDP; good thing that this is a target and not a membership retention requirement because besides the US and the UK, only geopolitical giants like Greece and Estonia are currently meeting it.
One large economy that is not scrambling for cash is Germany, which after a decade long economic structural adjustment is reaping the benefits of getting ahead of the austerity trend that is moving across Europe. One would assume that in time of need, states with relatively more money to spend on defense and/or NATO would step up and make up the difference if needed. Unfortunately, in this case it is Germany, which because of its 20th century history politely declines any sort of leadership that may seem to imposing. Furthermore, the German public often has a difficult relationship with military (or patriotism) for obvious reasons and a general lack of understanding about the importance of national security.
Nevertheless some of its politicians and delegates do recognize the importance of national security as well as NATO and on Tuesday came up with a suggestion to bridge the gaps through clustering. This would entail creating several clusters within NATO, each containing a larger country and several smaller members. Each cluster would provide capabilities and/or develop new ones for the entire organization. There would be a certain amount of specialization in certain capabilities by each cluster, which would help share costs of defense systems more effectively and make processes within each cluster and the entire organization more efficient. If this sounds a bit like the theory of comparative advantage, that is because it does. In international trade, nations gain from specializing in certain industries or products and trading for others; clustering could be faintly similar in that it allows for concentration on specific tasks/missions by clusters that are/could be better at these. Ideally then when they come together everything works great, looks great and is cheaper..... we will see about that.
So far the British have welcomed the proposal, while France and some others were critical, citing specialization by nations as potentially dangerous. The latter has its merits in certain situations, but as a NATO or EU member, is it not the point of collective security to make national security more effective and efficient by sharing resources?
Lastly, it is unclear how this clustering would work out with respect to the U.S., since it probably already is the most efficient at doing most types of missions, tasks, etc. There could be some cost savings, though they may not be large enough to be significant within the overall very large U.S. defense budget. A more likely scenario could be that European members contributions start to bridge the gap without the U.S. needing to increase their share of spending even further.