NATO, State (Re)emergence, and Military Capabilities and Commitments: the Terms of the Debate

By: Alex Calvo

USS John Fitzerald Kennedy entering Tarragona Harbour in 2002. The city could be an alternative to Rota as a home port for the US Navy missile defence destroyers in the Mediterranean.
USS John Fitzerald Kennedy entering Tarragona Harbour in 2002. The city could be an alternative to Rota as a home port for the US Navy missile defence destroyers in the Mediterranean.


The possible (re)emergence of states within NATO, at a time of renewed international tensions and widespread concern over the capabilities and commitments of existing member states, means that any such country seeking recognition will have to answer a fundamental question: will the combined capabilities and commitments of the two resulting successor states be greater or smaller than those of the existing parent state? In the run up to the Scottish referendum last year for instance, this was discussed, with some voices in the United States expressing their concern at the possible impact on the military capabilities of Washington’s first and foremost partner.  The Atlantic Council, a US-based think-tank published a comparative study of Scotland and Catalonia, which praised the latter, emphasizing plans for naval specialization which fit with perceived US and NATO needs. At the political level, US President Barack Obama expressed his hope that voters would support Scotland staying in the UK, while remaining silent on Catalan independence and deploying USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) to Barcelona a few days before the 9 November semi-official referendum.

The report by the Atlantic Council, and President Obama’s different attitude towards Scotland and Catalonia, are a reminder that each case is different. The (re)emergence of a state within NATO is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It would be as irresponsible to oppose any such internal expansion without a detailed look at the particular case as it would be to blindly welcome it without applying the same careful examinatio. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the debate, both in general and abstract terms, drawing on the case of Catalonia and Spain as a reference.

GDP. A state’s investment in defence is a measure of its total GDP multiplied by the coefficient determined by its political institutions. The division of an existing state can affect the size of the two resulting economies in different ways. On the one hand, it can lead to smaller and thus less efficient domestic markets. On the other, it can prompt more agile, dynamic, outward-oriented economies. Separation can put an end to the so called “rational underdevelopment” of some regions and to hard-to-justify discriminatory policies in areas like infrastructure, and regional and industrial policy.

A split can have a negative impact, at least in the short run, on both resulting economies if political risk assessments rise, or uncertainty remains over aspects such as the allocation of the national debt. If one of the successor states used to be a net payer to the common treasury (that is, it paid more in taxes than it received in public spending) and the other was a net recipient (it used to pay less than it received), then some questions arise. The short-term question is whether the additional post-independence growth in the net payer will compensate for the drop in the net recipien. In the longer run, the issue is whether the latter will benefit from more rational economic policies and an improved work ethic once it no longer enjoys funds from the former. Both Spain proper and Scotland are net recipients, while Catalonia’s yearly net fiscal transfers to the former are estimated at around 8 percent of the GDP in the last 15 years.

In the case of Catalonia, in 2000, 57 percent of Catalan exports were bound for the Spanish market, with the remaining 43 percent sent abroad; while in 2014, the percentages had reversed. In previous years, boycotts against Catalan products have been organized in Spain proper. The idea behind the boycotts was to prompt Catalan businesses and trade unions to oppose moves for further devolution (in particular the 2006 reform of Catalonia’s “Statute of Autonomy”, a law defining the powers of the regional authorities), for fear of losing market share in Spain proper, with the resulting negative impact on employment. However, rather than diminishing support for independence, such moves have largely backfired, while providing added momentum to the drive for internationalization.Regulated industries (such as banking) still under Madrid’s yoke remain shy when it comes to expanding abroad, but the myriad small and medium-sized enterprises accounting for much of Catalonia’s economic tissue less so, with quite a few having become “pocket multinationals”, that is not very large corporations which are nevertheless present in a wide range of countries. A post-independence boycott by consumers in Spain proper remains a possibility, and would have a negative short-term impact on Catalan GDP, however this would not translate into lower longer-term economic growth, rather the contrary. The reason is that, just like with the boycotts against the 2006 reform of the “Statute of Autonomy”, they would prompt businesses to expand in other countries, thus gaining size and competitiveness. Furthermore, in an independent Catalonia this trend would also involve those industries currently regulated by Madrid, such as infrastructure management and banking, which to date have internationalized to a very small degree. We should also remember that, while Spain’s Castilian core may remain hostile to the new state, Valencia and the Balearic Islands are likely to take a much more nuanced approach. In addition to sharing a language with Catalonia, their economic structure is similar. They also suffer a large fiscal deficit (difference between taxes paid and public spending received) and a lack of infrastructure investment, while their economy is based on small and medium-sized enterprises, which have been excluded by successive Spanish governments from the defence industry and related sectors such as airspace. A third consideration is that the value of Catalan exports to Spain proper include the value added by exporters plus the value of the intermediate goods used to produce them (that is, commodities, energy, and components, bought in Catalonia or abroad by Catalan companies to produce goods bound for Spain proper). Thus, taking the latter out, the effective percentage of Catalan GDP included in exports to Spain proper is lower, 22.5% of the GDP.

Concerning Spain proper, there are no Catalan plans for a boycott, and the independence movement has rather been careful and stress its desire to see good bilateral relations after separation. In that event, as Catalonia opens up further to world trade, and Spanish enterprises lose their current advantage in terms of common legislation and considerable overlap in the mass media sphere, they will face stronger competition from third-country producers in the Catalan market. This could be beneficial for Spanish companies, by forcing them to become more competitive. It would also promote their internationalization in two ways: thanks to this greater competitiveness forced by greater competition in the Catalan market, and due to a loss of market share in Catalonia pushing them to seek alternative markets.

In the short term, however, it is the loss of Catalan subsidies that may have the strongest impact on the economy of Spain proper, which has become structurally dependent on easy money from Catalonia and could suffer a significant GDP loss as these funds dried out. Although the EU and the IMF may push for a gradual easing out of financial flows, with some transitional agreements, Catalan independence would sooner or later mean that the more than 16 billion euros transferred to Spain proper every year would not longer be there. This would not necessarily be bad in the longer term. It could release Spanish entrepreneurial spirits and force a more rational set of economic policies, with for example greater infrastructure spending in industrial areas, more business-friendly tax regulations, and greater competition. Having said this, it is however likely to prompt further defence cuts in the short run. Ideally, this should prompt a fundamental transformation of Spain’s Armed Forces into a smaller, but non-political, agile, and better prepared military. Section 8.1 of Spain’s 1978 constitution reads “The mission of the Armed Forces … is … to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional order”. This passage, believed to have actually been drafted by the military themselves, is widely understood to mean that Spain’s Armed Forces can be used to prevent Catalan independence, and seemed to be on Defence Minister Pedro Morenes’ mind when he said, in the run up to the 27 September election to the Catalan Parliament, that there would be no military intervention “as long as everybody does their duty”. If to the possibility of a military intervention in Catalonia we add the regular harassment of Gibraltar at sea, we can observe two very serious distractions for the Spanish Armed Forces.

Pyrenees Regiment No. 1 on training exercises.
Ski Company, First Pyrenees Regiment, training during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This elite unit was set up by mountain sports enthusiasts and served under the Catalan Government.†

Defence investment and procurement. Due to economies of scale, it could be argued that successor states will need to invest more simply to achieve the same capabilities as the parent state. In some cases, it could even be argued that some or all successor states will not be able to afford expensive hardware. On the other hand, this may facilitate greater integration and coordination with allies, with less duplication and fewer prestige projects. It may also lead to a renewed emphasis on maintenance and training, stressing not nominal capabilities, but real, deployable capabilities (which a country can effectively transport, deploy, and maintain).

In the case of Spain, procurement is deeply imbalanced, with the country embarking on expensive projects mainly motivated by a mixture of prestige and industrial policy, rather than operational considerations. The result: a large gap between nominal and real capabilities, problems in deploying and sustaining forces far from her shores, and a lack of funds for training, maintenance, and operations, with the bulk of defence spending going into personnel and procurement. To be fair, these problems are not unique to Spain. For example, the German deployment in Afghanistan was plagued by equipment failures, with a 2014 official report 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.” However, the case of Spain is perhaps even more extreme, going beyond a lack of proper maintenance. A study on “Southern Europe Defence in Times of Austerity” noted that “[t]he Spanish military industrial base ranks tenth in the world and sixth in Europe thanks in part to its stake in EAD, 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 defence expenditures across the board.”

Catalonia’s national security community is keenly aware of such problems, as reflected in successive unofficial white papers by the Military Studies Society (SEM). Its latest on defence budgets, published in June, lays down a set of serious, realistic budgetary guidelines for an independent Catalonia, based on the experience of NATO allies. The text stresses 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.” The white paper strongly emphasizes that “The Catalan Defence Forces (CDF) cannot make these mistakes,” and recommends that “the percentage of the defence budget devoted to operations and maintenance should be between 35 and 40 percen.” For Catalonia, starting from scratch after 300 years without her own armed forces, this is a golden opportunity to avoid past mistakes, by both the Spanish military and those of many allies. The result should be a more agile, balanced military, where equipment is purchased according to perceived needs, rather than by industry lobbying, and then properly maintained.

Turning to the legitimate question of whether Catalan defence budgets will be large enough to sustain acquisition programs in areas like strategic airlift, a quick look at the numbers shows this should not be a problem. Catalonia currently accounts for roughly 20 percent of Spanish GDP, Madrid in turn spending 0.6 percent on defence. An independent Catalonia following NATO guidelines, as suggested by the SEM, would thus be spending the equivalent of 0.4 percent of current Spanish GDP. Adding in the expected long-term greater economic growth from the end of fiscal transfers, irrational economic policies, and sabotage to key infrastructures, it is not easy to imagine total Catalan defence spending surpassing the figure for today’s Spain. Spain may well find herself unable to sustain current levels of defence spending, however, since much of these capabilities are either not being properly maintained and used in training, or are directed towards fellow NATO member states (UK) or American allies (Morocco), it is not something that should concern alliance planners much.

Intra-alliance conflict (between successor states, or between the existing parent state and other partners). Concerning post-independence relations between successor states, at one end of the spectrum we could imagine two good neighbours leaving behind tensions and now able and eager to work together, both bilaterally and within wider permanent alliances and ad-hoc coalitions. At the other end of the spectrum, two hostile states with unresolved disputes and at least one failing to rule out a resort to force, prompting most of their capabilities to be addressed at each other rather than available to allies.

When the parent state has persistently been employing non-lethal force against a fellow NATO member state, the question arises whether once reduced in size it will persist in this policy, now with fewer resources, or whether it will abandon such an approach. In the latter case, the impact on the alliance’s capabilities will be doubly positive, since capabilities devoted to intra-alliance conflict will now be available to NATO, as will be those employed by the other member state to defend itself.

In Spain’s case, the country seems able to work with some of her former colonies, as shown by the successful incorporation of some 30 Portuguese commandos in the Spanish Legion’s detachment deployed in Iraq in a training and mentoring capacity. Unfortunately, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule, with Madrid unable or unwilling to recognize Gibraltar’s right to decide her own future, and the ensuing policy of constant harassment. In 2015, from 1 January to 23 June, the Spanish Navy had engaged in 23 violations of British territorial waters, while absent from BALTOPS201 , in a reminder that in a world with limited resources, failing to rule out the use of force against a fellow ally puts a dent on any potential contribution to NATO. It also has an impact on that ally’s contribution. Thus, when measuring Spain’s net contribution to the Atlantic alliance, we should subtract all the assets and capabilities devoted to the harassment of Gibraltar, plus the corresponding British assets and capabilities employed to defend the people of the Rock. Catalonia, having excellent relations with Gibraltar and the United Kingdom, which the national security community sees as a key partner, does not suffer such handicap. The new state will not have to spend a cent on disturbing the life and property of her Majesty’s subject

Ceuta and Melill, two cities located in North Africa, the former right in front of Gibraltar, administered by Spain but claimed by Morocco, also merit a mention. While this conflict is more low key, a significant portion of Spanish forces are deployed with their defence in mind. Since Morocco is a US Ally, again we would have to subtract them when measuring Madrid’s potential contribution to NATO. Not a problem for Catalonia, which is not party to any territorial conflict with the North African country. To add insult to injury, Ceuta has become the main logistic support base for the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean and North-East Atlantic, with Madrid blatantly disregarding Western sanctions in the wake of the Crimean crisis. In 2014 for instance, Russian warships docked at Ceuta on 13 occasions, while nine such visits have taken place in the first six months of 2015. By opening up Ceuta to Moscow, Madrid has forfeited the claim that it is in NATO’s interest to see Catalonia, including key ports like Tarragona and Barcelona, remain in Spanish hands.

Pyrenees Regiment No. 1 on training exercises.

Defence industrial policy and international defence industry cooperation. Smaller domestic weapons markets can be cited as having a potentially negative impact. On the other hand, in those states where the dominant nationality has excluded another from the defence industry, the resulting end to the defence industry “apartheid” may enable weapons development and production to take root. In particular, where the excluded territory used to have an arms industry earlier in its history, and retains a significant civilian industrial base, as is the case in Catalonia.

The issue for third countries — in particular those involved in international consortia featuring the existing parent state — is the net impact. This may depend on possible synergies with existing civilian industries in the territory previously excluded from arms production.

Successive Spanish governments have excluded Catalan enterprises from the defence industry and many dual sectors, while subsidizing production in areas like Seville (Airbus Group), with little or no industrial tradition. A 2015 official report on Spain’s security and defence industry provides details of 47 companies, none of which is based in Catalonia, with only three in Valencia Region. Madrid has also strived to keep Catalonia isolated from southern France, home to most of the country’s aircraft industries. An end to this defence policy “apartheid” would allow Catalan enterprises to expand into the defence—and dual—industries, in a move which would benefit maritime democracies, including partners in the F-35 consortium. Spanish industry would contract, but this would liberate the country’s partners from the extra costs involved in manufacturing in regions with no industrial traditio. A look at FDI (foreign direct investment) reveals a completely different geography from that of the defence industry programs jointly sponsored by Spain’s Defence and Industry Ministries. In the second quarter of 2015, 35.1 percent of Spain-bound industrial FDI went to Catalonia, while none of Spain’s at least 300 8×8 wheeled infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) based on General Dynamics’ Piranha 5 will be manufactured in Catalonia. The initial order is expected to be worth EUR1.5 billion.

The location of Airbus Group’s plant in Seville, in the southern region of Andalusia, where there is little private industry, does not make sense. From a French perspective, a Catalan town would seem more logical, since French aeronautical industry is concentrated around Toulouse, close to Catalonia. This would also benefit UK taxpayers, given the significant connection between the Spanish and British defence industries, to a large extent due to the two countries’ cooperation in aircraft projects. According to the official Spanish report on 2014 weapons exports, the United Kingdom ranked first among the country’s customers, with purchases worth 862.7 million euros, 26.9 percent of the total. The report explains that three aerial refuelling tankers accounted for 573,9 million euros and a transport airplane for 121.8 million euros, with a portion of the balance coming from parts for the EF-2000 fighter and the A400M military transport plane. As we can see, this is not trade in finished weapons systems, but rather intra-industry trade among countries cooperating in joint projects, where the distribution of the work involved is often related to the volume of orders from each defence ministry. Therefore, by excluding Catalan industry and imposing manufacture in areas like Seville, with little tradition of private industry, Madrid is raising the total cost of production of these aircraft.

Cohesion, internal security. When an existing state resorts to force, or the threat of force, to retain its present territory and population, a portion of its security and defence capabilities will have to be devoted to this task, and thus unavailable to NATO. Distracted by the need to coerce part of their population into remaining, collective defence may not be a priority.

This is the case in Spain, where the military granted itself the duty and right to employ force to keep the country together in the 1978 Constitution. The 2006 Statute of Autonomy, Catalonia’s last attempt to find a reasonable accommodation within Spain, also prompted sabre rattling, and on 17 May 2015 Catalan police caught three Spanish soldiers stealing an independence flag in Figueres. Stealing flags is obviously not the best way to train for NATO operations, while wasting Catalan police’s time does not contribute to the fight against Jihadist terrori. Every minute spent by Catalan police officers investigating such deeds is a minute not spent fighting against international terrorism and organized crime. The extent to which the resort to force to prevent Catalan self-determination distracts and perverts Spanish defence policy is clear from available statistic. While the defence budget has shrunk by 32 percent since 2008 (68 percent according to some sources, but this may not fully take into account defence spending from other departments’ budgets, for example the Industry Ministry to fund weapons programs involving domestic manufacturing, as well as extra-budgetary liabilities), that of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) grew by 9.7 percent in 2015. Details may not be available on open sources, but it is suspected that the bulk of this increase is devoted to the “dirty war” against the Catalan independence movement.

Catalonia, on the other hand, has made clear from the outset that Val d’Aran, with her own language and culture, was free to join the new state or go her own way. No Catalan military capabilities will be needed to keep inside those who want out. Whether Spain without Catalonia will stop seeing the military as a political actor is not clear at this stage. Ideally this change should take place, releasing military capabilities currently not available to the Atlantic alliance.

Citizens’ loyalty: Draft and reserves. If some citizens within the parent state feel little loyalty, or even a measure of hostility towards it, for whatever reasons (justified or otherwise), there may be a gap between its theoretical manpower pool and the actual number of deployable citizens, be they regular or reserve. While the parent state may resort to a purely professional military to avoid this problem, it may then translate into a lower degree of political support for defence policies.

This is clearly the case in Spain, where there is little love between the state’s Castilian core and many of her non-Castilian citizens, leading to a downward spiral where the more the centre uses—or threatens to use—force against those wishing to leave, the less the latter feel bound to support the former’s resort to force as a legitimate instrument of foreign policy. Many Catalan citizens who feel alienated by the Spanish military may well wish to support their Catalan counterpart, for example by joining the reserves, making the combined manpower pool available to the two successor states larger.

Transitional issues: Inheriting defence assets and personnel. Downsizing and building one’s military. In addition to wider economic issues, the transition from parent state to successor states also features some aspects specific to the military. Among them, the distribution of existing defence assets and personnel and the accompanying downsizing of the parent state’s and (re)creation of the successor states’ armed forces.

Concerning the distribution of Spanish military assets, preliminary defence planning in Catalonia has featured two views, with some analysts favouring the taking over of some naval and air assets, while others prefer to avoid systems not necessarily best suited to Catalan and allied needs. With regard to Spanish military personnel wishing to join Catalonia’s Armed Forces, the issue is highly sensitive and has not been publicly discussed by the Catalan Government. However, both the Catalan Government and parties have stressed that Spanish Government employees in Catalonia will keep their jobs after independence, and in so doing they have not excluded any category. The Advisory Council on the National Transition, a government agency tasked with preparing a number of white papers to prepare for independence, also refers to Spanish Government workers without excluding the military, although again without referring to them explicitly. Some members of the Spanish military may have discreetly enquired about the possibility of joining Catalonia’s Armed Forces, but they are unlikely to do anything which may put their jobs at risk until this possibility is a real one. We could also mention that when Catalan Police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, began to expand in the 1980s to become responsible for most public security duties, Spanish Police and Civil Guard (a constabulary-type force) officers in Catalonia were given the chance to join. Catalonia may also need to provide for those members of the Spanish military who do not wish to follow this route but who refuse to follow orders contrary to international law and fear subsequent reprisals.

Conclusions. The factors discussed are only a sample of those that may have an impact on state succession within NATO, resulting in greater or lesser capabilities and commitments towards the alliance. This work should ideally be followed by more extensive research and case studies, but should at least serve the purpose of underlining that, no matter how distressing the (re)emergence of states can sometimes be, the consequences to defence policy should be approached rigorously. It is also a reminder that any new state wishing to be recognized by existing states will have to explain to the international community how it will not only defend itself but also its allies and partners. Even more so at a time of increasing tensions, a country’s contribution to collective security is bound to be one of the main factors determining its recognition, or lack thereof, by the international community.

In the case of Catalonia, preliminary defence planning is geared towards the creation of a modern, capable, and agile military, ready to protect the country’s territory and population and make a powerful, positive contribution to NATO. This scenario could also give Spain the chance to reform her own military, in which case the Atlantic alliance would gain two net security contributors. However, it is still too early to say whether Catalan independence will prompt a rationalization of Spanish defence policy and thus a positive contribution to NATO from Madrid.


Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College,  23 December 2013, is available at, can be found at


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