With the NATO summit set for June 11-12, the focus will rightly be on Ukraine as member states debate a potential path for the country to join the alliance. But the alliance should look beyond Ukraine and turn a mirror on itself to consider how its own front-line states would fare in a Russian invasion.
The image is cloudy and full of risk, as the countries bordering Russia or Belarus are largely too small in population, funds and depth to mount an effective defense on their own, while NATO’s relatively minimal deployment of forces in the region merely serves as a tripwire. Taking a page from the 1940s, the United States can fix this rather hopeless situation by revitalizing and updating its lend-lease and military aid programs, helping turn each front-line state into a porcupine.
NATO’s front-line states that border Russia and its satrapy Belarus comprise Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Norway. Each, while highly committed to the alliance, possesses weaknesses when it comes to its own defense. Money is a common problem, despite increases in defense spending that have followed Russia’s invasion, and the majority struggle to meet NATO’s goal that members spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.
None of these countries (even a country as wealthy as Norway) are spending or can spend enough to deter or fight a large-scale war against Russia. As an example, if these countries were to somehow muster the economic strength to spend 5% of their GDP on defense, none would breach $38 billion. On the low end, Estonia and Latvia would spend just over $2 billion, while on the high end Poland would spend $37 billion.
Compare these numbers to the cost of war in Ukraine. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, worldwide defense commitments to Ukraine stood at about $74 billion between January 2022 and February 2023, with the U.S. accounting for nearly $47 billion of this amount. These totals aren’t meant to imply that NATO’s front-line states must spend this much on their defense, as each countries’ defense needs vary based on geography, manpower, existing equipment and other factors. But they are to say that defense spending is an insurance policy; and what small NATO countries are capable of spending now is inadequate for the defense needed.
External help is essential. That’s where the United States comes in as provision of loans, leases and grants of military hardware can equip each state with the sort of defense that’s realistic for deterring Russia: that of a porcupine. More commonly associated with Taiwan, the aim of a porcupine defense would be to arm these countries to the teeth so that it would be painfully hard for the Russians to swallow them in an invasion. The weapons that are key to such a defense are comparatively cheap and asymmetric like loitering munitions, mines and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems — all of which have been effective in Ukraine.
Congress can help supply these and other weapons by first delinking its current legislation allowing lend-lease authorities to Ukraine and passing a separate bill expanding its scope beyond the law’s vaguely defined “Eastern European countries.” This new bill should apply to NATO’s front-line states for at least the next decade, allowing for the lend, lease and donation of American defense articles beyond the two-year time limit in existing statute. Necessary appropriations should follow to support this commitment.
Next, Congress should take advantage of laws that are already on the books to provide hardware directly from U.S. contractors. It should specifically employ a little-used authority enacted decades ago: the Defense Export Loan Guarantee Program provided under 10 U.S.C. 4971. This program fully insures private sector lenders against potential losses of interest and principal in the sale or lease of defense articles — basically an Export-Import Bank mechanism for defense goods.
While the DELG Program has been used only once, Congress can breathe new life into the program, revising it to help supply NATO’s front-line states. It can do so by adjusting DELG’s current authorization that the U.S. can make $15 billion in loan guarantees. While $15 billion is no small sum, especially for countries that spend well less than that on defense, this limit should be dramatically increased to $100 billion. That will buy the asymmetric weapons needed to mount a credible porcupine defense.
Congress should also examine long-standing issues with DELG along with Foreign Military Financing and Foreign Military Sales to ensure these programs can rapidly move weapons systems to the front-line states.
The U.S. can play a significant part in helping NATO’s front-line states defend themselves with the same fervor, and similar weaponry, that the Ukrainians are using to repel Russia. As we have learned time and time again, it is much cheaper to deter aggression than it is to fight a war. Nothing would help NATO’s deterrence credibility more than loans, leases and the transfer of American weapons to those countries directly in harm’s way.
Bill Greenwalt is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, a former senior staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy. Charles Rahr is a research assistant at AEI.