“The [NATO military] strategy will guide Allied military decision-making and provide NATO’s Military Authorities with a definitive policy reference, enabling us to deliver our core mission – defending almost 1 billion people”.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, 22 May 2019
2 July 2019
NATO’s Ten Day Nightmare
At the core of NATO’s many challenges is a refusal by many of the Allies to consider the worst-case. NATO’s nightmare is a Russian war plan that fits all-too neatly into NATO’s defence plan, or what passes for one given there is no actual standing defence plan. Put simply, the Russians could well have achieved their ‘limited’ war aims in the Baltic States and stopped by the time the bulk of NATO forces begin to move. NATO would re-discover all too quickly von Moltke’s old dictum that all plans collapse on contact with the enemy. In such circumstances, there would be little or no time to rotate forces and resources through some neatly conceived campaign plan. They would be faced, instead, with a Russian fait accompliin the Baltic States (or indeed elsewhere), and with it a very profound question; are NATO Europeans willing to go to war with Russia to rescue their allies? If they did, they would do so knowing all too well the risk of nuclear war. If they did not, NATO would be dead.
Last Monday, I went to Szczecin in Poland to visit Headquarters, Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC NE) to brief the impressive Lieutenant-General Slawomir Wojchiechowski, together wih senior NATO commanders, on my assessment of the strategic situation in the Baltic Sea Region. On Wednesday, I went in to Tartu, Estonia, close to the Russian border, to address an important event on hybrid warfare and grey zone operations, which was co-hosted by the Baltic Defence College and Washington’s National Defense University, of which I have the honour to be a Distinguished Fellow. This extended think/do piece is both my assessment of the week and my recommendations.
My message? The ‘correlation of forces’ between Russian forces in Moscow’s Western Military District, and those on NATO’s Eastern Flank, is dangerously out of balance. It is an imbalance that is exacerbated by a lack of joined-upness between Allied governments, a lack of cohesion between NATO headquarters, and a critical lack of forces and resources that would be available to NATO commanders in an emergency.
Deterring means defending
If NATO cannot defend, it cannot deter. That to me is the implicit message in NATO’s new military strategy which is good, as far as it goes. However, growing world-wide pressures on US forces, allied to severe limitations on the capabilities and capacities of NATO’s European forces, mean the strategy is simply unable ease the profound and growing tensions that exist between the ends, ways and means of NATO’s Strategic Concept – the real one, not the out-of-date published one. It also falls far short of the strategic ambition needed to provide a credible deterrent and defence posture around 360 degrees of threat because NATO forces lack both the weight of arms and speed of response upon which credible deterrence stands. Critically, the strategy fails to adequately close NATO’s two critical and dangerous deterrence gaps. First, between NATO’s conventional and nuclear deterrents, and, second, between NATO’s forward deployed forces and the bulk of the national forces the Alliance would need to call upon in an emergency. Quality, heavy, rapidly-deployable forces are the Achilles’ heel of the NATO command and force structures. Critically, those that do exist are simply too slow, too few in number, subject to too many national caveats, or too distant to meet an attack by Russia that General Gerasimov and his Staff spend much of their time planning. It is a crisis, for that is what it is, that would be made far worse if the Allies faced simultaneous crises on multiple fronts, as could well be the reality. What to do?
The facts speak for themselves. In the Baltic States there are four brigades with no tanks, combat aircraft and little artillery and air defence, reinforced by one multinational NATO battlegroup in each of the Baltic States designed to act as a ‘trip wire’ force in the event of a Russian attack. Trip-wire to what?
On the other side of the Estonian-Russian border, close to where I was speaking last week, the Russian Order of Battle includes the 1stGuards Tank Army, 6thand 20thCombined Arms Armies, 11thArmy Corps in Kaliningrad, 3 airborne divisions, 3 Spetsnaz Special Forces Brigades, 10 rocket and artillery brigades and 30 tank/motor rifle brigades/regiments plus one naval infantry brigade. There are also significant Russian air and naval assets in the region, all of which are reinforced by Russia’s short-range, theatre and strategic nuclear forces.
In other words, Russian forces enjoy such local, and possibly regional-strategic superiority that NATO deterrence is close to being a dangerous bluff. New military strategy or no, at their current level of readiness the bulk of NATO forces would take months to assemble. Critically, in a war, vital US reinforcements will need to cross a contested Atlantic and land at vulnerable Bremerhaven, whilst military mobility across Europe will remain severely compromised for the foreseeable future.
Complex strategic coercion: adapting to what?
If the credibility of NATO deterrence is to be reinforced, and quickly, existing forces and command resources need to be used far more effectively and efficiently across the entire 360 degree bandwidth of complex strategic coercion. That imperative places particular importance on NATO’s force hub in Germany and Poland, around which NATO pivots. This space is vital both for the defence of the Eastern Flank and the Baltic Sea Region, as well as for reinforcing support for Allies in south-east and southern Europe.
At the 2018 Brussels Summit NATO took some steps to ‘adapt’ the Alliance to meet that 360 degree challenge posed by an array of evolving and dynamic threats, and thus ease the deterrence and defence dilemma with which NATO forces must contend. The modernisation of Alliance collective defence will be reinforced with the so-called 4×30 initiative. Efforts will also be made to enhance and improve military mobility in an emergency, much of the work to be done in conjunction with the EU. The NATO Command Structure and Force Structure are in the process of being reinforced and modernised, with a new Atlantic Command and the German-led Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) being stood up. The Alliance is also moving to strengthened defences against irregular threats with the establishment of a Cyberspace Operations Centre and Counter Hybrid Support Teams
For all that I remain deeply concerned and sceptical. NATO’s collective defences are extremely brittle and could well crack in the face of a determined enemy. My specific concerns focus on the NATO command structure, the location of key commands and the cohesion between them, as well as the false assumptions underpinning policy and planning about the nature of future conflict, and how it would impact upon Alliance forces.
Take Multinational Corps Northeast as an example. It is NATO’s ‘unblinking eye’ on NATO’s Eastern Flank, and thus central to Alliance deterrence and defence. From my observations, MNC NE is doing all in its power to meet a central challenge to the Alliance that would be more realistic if its Area of Responsibility (AOR) was re-christened NATO’s Eastern Front, although that may resonate too eloquently with history. In any case, HQ MNC NE would be at the core of any organised NATO response to a Russian attack on the Baltic States.
Unfortunately, the constraints on MNC NE typify the ends, ways and means crisis faced by the Alliance as a whole. It has no authority to co-ordinate between the separate forces of the three Baltic States in the event of an attack, even though it would provide command and control for Baltic ground forces and act as a Baltic Corps HQ with NATO-trained, Baltic commanders and staff officers. MNC NE would also be pivotal for organising the reception, staging and onward movement of reinforcing NATO forces into Poland, whilst also acting as a corps-level HQ to command Polish forces that would be critical in any emergency. And yet, Szcezcin is some 900km from the Lithuanian border!
Move the ARRC to Poland
What is needed is a reinforced heavy command hub in NATO’s German-Poland pivot space that could respond to emergencies in strength across the full bandwidth of Alliance contingencies. A cluster of mutually-reinforcing, hardened, deployable headquarters able to shift their respective centres of gravity in support of each other to meet all and any emergency.
The Poles are acutely aware that they sit not only in the midst of NATO’s pivotal space, but also in the middle of NATO’s deterrence gaps, which is why there have been calls from Warsaw for American forces to be stationed in Poland, at what President Duda rather mischievously dubbed Fort Trump. This would be a mistake. The Americans need their German command and logistics hub, as well as their vital strategic relationship with the Bundeswehr, to provide the hard core foundation of any reinforced defence should the need arise. It would be better to leave US forces permanently-stationed in Germany.
Solution? Move the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) from sleepy Gloucestershire in the UK, where it is currently based, to Poland, possibly supported by a US Army corps. There would be a range of benefits from such a redeployment.
First, the ARRC could provide the command backbone for a new mobile heavy force that would see a much upgraded enhanced NATO Response Force evolve into a twenty-first century Allied Command Europe Heavy Mobile Force. Such a force would be a true 360 degree force and would work closely with, and in an emergency reinforce, MNC NE and MND NE.
Second, NATO planning is built on the premise that its nine deployable corps headquarters would rotate command during an extended emergency. In fact, there is every possibility that an emergency would be far from ‘extended’. What is needed is to prevent such a crisis from happening in the first place. Moving the ARRC to Poland would send a strong message of reinforced deterrence and enable MNC NE to retain its ‘unblinking eye’ on the defence of the Baltic Sea Region.
Third, the deployment of the ARRC to Poland would improve interoperability between the respective headquarters and promote mutual mentoring. The deployment of the ARRC to Poland would thus not only create a much heavier command and response cluster centred on Poland, it could also help establish a new NATO standard for command cohesion and interoperability through a series of pan-command, ‘test to fail’ development exercises.
Fourth, moving the ARRC to Poland would help to break down command barriers between the nations. For all NATO’s on-paper cohesion each deployable headquarters is very much a national (and/or separate entity) over which the two Joint Force Commands have at best nominal control. There is also a lot of petty jealousy between the headquarters. The ARRC is a case in point. It emerged from the old British I Corps and was withdrawn (ridiculously) from Rheindahlen in Germany in 2010, when Britain stopped being a power and became a balance-sheet. It also has a reputation amongst the other corps headquarters of being arrogant and stand-offish. Deploying the ARRC to Poland with the support of US forces in Germany would help reduce such perceptions.
Fifth, the deployment of the ARRC to Poland would show that America’s European allies are willing to solve Alliance problems and share the necessary burdens with the US needed to make the new NATO military strategy credible. It would also demonstrate that the Allies were conscious of the growing global responsibilities of US forces, and the growing pressures they are under.
Sixth, in the wake of the Brexit mess a decision by London to offer the ARRC for such a role would go far beyond the current work Britain is doing with the Joint Expeditionary Force. It would send a strong political signal that Britain remains firmly committed to the defence of continental Europe and is not going to withdraw behind its nuclear shield. A signal that would be further strengthened if the new British prime minister offered more British forces in support of the deployment.
Seventh, the deployment of the ARRC to Poland could also help establish an active framework for the development of high-end, US-friendly European intervention forces. As such, the deployment would be in line with President Macron’s European Intervention Initiative and an extension of the Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force. In so doing, it would help promote a European force development hub centred on France, Germany, Poland and the UK.
Fort Trump? Try ARRC Poland
Some will no doubt suggest that such a forward deployment of the ARRC would make it vulnerable to a Russian first strike. Such a threat is real, be it in Poland or Gloucestershire. However, whilst deploying the ARRC to Poland would not completely close the deterrence gaps, it would immediately add weight, speed and credibility to NATO’s deterrence, NATO agility, and NATO responsiveness across the collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security missions. Critically, it would reinforce the mission and credibility of the Alliance’s forward deployed forces in the Baltic States and Poland by establishing a more credible graduated response to threats across the conflict spectrum. Above all, it would complicate the thinking of Russia’s General Gerasimov, as well as his experienced and able Staff, by reinforcing NATO’s spine in the critical strategic space in Poland. At present, President Putin and General Gerasimov believe NATO’s Eastern and South-Eastern Flanks enjoy peace at their discretion.
Of course, the deployment of the ARRC to Poland would not compensate for a lack of sufficiently robust European forces, armed with sufficient weight and agility, upon which credible deterrence really rests. To solve that conundrum NATO’s Europeans need to wake up to the new reality of the contemporary and future transatlantic relationship. The Americans will only be able to assure the security and defence of Europe if Europeans do an awful lot more deterring and defending themselves. In other words, and for the sake of NATO and Europe’s citizens, European leaders must finally stop talking defence and start doing it! Deploying the ARRC to Poland would be an important first step up that particular road.