The NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept

“It is important to emphasise that the willingness to commit decisively hard capability with the credibility to war fight is an essential part of the ability to operate and therefore of deterrence…we cannot afford any longer to operate in silos – we have to be integrated: with allies as I have described, across Government, as a national enterprise, but particularly across the military instrument. Effective integration of maritime, land, air, space and cyber achieves a multi-Domain effect that adds up to far more than simply the sum of the parts – recognising – to paraphrase Omar Bradley – that the overall effect is only as powerful as the strength of the weakest Domain…We must chart a direction of travel from an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems.”

General Sir Nick Carter, “The Integrated Operating Concept”, 30 September, 2020

Exercise Joint Warrior

NATO’s Exercise Joint Warrior is underway. It brings back fond memories. In 2013 I had the honour of being an observer. Apart from ‘decorating’ the wardroom of HMS Westminster with the substantial and substantive consequences of my patent lack of sea legs, and being pretty ill for twenty four distinctly unmemorable hours thereafter, I gained an invaluable insight into the maritime-amphibious business of the Alliance. Joint Warrior 2020 finishes tomorrow having conducted a series of mainly anti-submarine and contested landing exercises in the North Sea and having involved over 6,000 personnel and 81 ships from 11 nations.  Critically, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was also present in tandem with the Royal Navy. The past? No. The future. 

The British-led exercise also pointed to the future by showing how a European maritime-amphibious future force could operate with the US future force in a contested battlespace. For the first time the new Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group was revealed with HMS Queen Elizabeth at its F35B Lightning 2 power projection core. The exercise was also taking place against the backdrop of NATO’s real twenty-first century challenge: how to transform the Alliance’s defence and deterrence posture, what President Macron rather unfairly called ‘brain dead’ NATO last December, into the super-smart, agile force the Alliance will need by decade’s end.  

It is a force that if needs be must have the capability and capacity to act across the mosaic that is hybrid, cyber and hyper warfare. A transformation that must also take place whilst the coming COVID-19 economic crisis wreaks havoc with European defence budgets. Even today even Europe’s largest navies, the Royal Navy and French Navy, are so small that if they seek to carry our Mahanian sea control, à la the RN Carrier Strike Group, it can only be done at the expense of Corbettian sea presence.  Any smaller they will be unable to perform either role. The solution?  A deep combined European Future Maritime-Amphibious Force built around a command hub focussed on the British and French navies. The irony is that Britain’s departure from the EU may make such a force easier to realise now that the spectre of an EU Army/Navy has been removed from British concerns.  

Zircon and the US Future Navy

Future Allied defence and deterrence is not the only challenge implicit in Joint Warrior 2020. On October 6th, US Secretary for Defense Mark Esper previewed Battle Force 2045, the plan for the US future navy. Esper offered the vision of a five hundred ship US Navy comprised of both manned and unmanned ships. The essential points of the Esper Plan is for more nuclear attack submarines, 50-60 amphibious assault ships that could also be used as light aircraft carriers (this is ironic for the Royal Navy as it pioneered such ships and then scrapped them), large (1000-2000 tons) and medium (500 tons) unmanned ships, together with extra-large sub-surface platforms (50 tons) that can host hypersonic missile and Artificially Intelligent drone swarms, with the future fleet supported by 80-90 frigates and longer range carrier strike aircraft, both manned and unmanned, that have far greater ‘reach’ than afforded by the F35B Lightning 2. 

On October 7th, as Exercise Joint Warrior got underway, and as a sign of the challenge Allied navies will face, President Putin’s sixty-eighth birthday present was a successful test of a 3M22 Tsirkon (Zirkon) hypersonic anti-ship missile which can travel at over 1.2 miles/2 kilometre per second up to 1,200 miles/2,000 km. A message? Absolutely. NATO? In my speech to the Committee for Standardization at NATO HQ in Brussels at the end of last month I said that the next ten years will see the equivalent of seventy years of past military technological development crammed into it and more.  There are some good signs. For example, the US and UK already enjoy what might be called an AI Special Relationship, but far more needs to be done by the Allies to compete in what could be a deadly race between democracy and autocracy.  

The NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept (NSIOC)

The Plan? Certainly, NATO needs a new Strategic Concept that reaffirms the enduring purpose of the Alliance and its fundamental tasks given the fast changing nature and scope of contemporary and future risks and threats. Critically, the Alliance also needs a NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept that would populate General Carter’s vision with real resources, something the British alone will be unable to do.  This is because the essential challenge for NATO deterrence and defence concerns the balance the European Allies must strike post COVID-19 between cost, military capability, military capacity, technology and the fast expanding military task-list that is being generated by the new strategic environment.  The next decade really will be different and dangerous. 

That challenge is reinforced by the urgent need to effectively and efficiently organise cash-starved Bonzai European militaries into a force that can contribute meaningfully to Allied defence and deterrence, maintain interoperability in extremis with the US future force, and if needs be act as a high-end, first responder in and around Europe. As an aside, London should be congratulated for looking ahead but for the British there is also a profound danger that the forthcoming Integrated Review 2020, with its headline-grabbing focus on space and digital domains, will simply be yet another of those ‘clever’ London political metaphors to mask further cuts to Britain’s already waning fighting power. In other words, Britain’s future force only makes sense in a NATO context and only if it can work at the high end of operations with the Americans.

Thankfully, there are signs that such hard realities are beginning to be gripped. NATO’s new Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro Atlantic Area (DDA) is designed as a stepping stone en route to an adapted/transformed Alliance. It is also designed to deliver an unambiguous, consistent and continuous demonstration of Alliance military power with a commitment to operational purposefulness by emphasising not just awareness of, but also future effectiveness, across multiple warfare domains and in multiple geographic areas.

Given the level of strategic ambition necessarily implicit in NATO’s future defence and deterrence posture, including further reforms to the NATO Command Structure, the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept (‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’) now belongs to another age.  This is because NATO will have to engineer a new force and resource centre of gravity at a higher end of military effect whilst also securing its citizens from what I have called 5D continuous strategic coercion (deception, disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and implied destruction). 

The Path of Transformation

Realism is also needed as the path of NATO transformation rarely runs smooth and many Allies are still deeply reluctant to embrace the change needed to save the Alliance upon which they rely for their defence. In 2018 the North Atlantic Council tasked General Scaparotti, the then Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), to set out his ‘Strategic Thoughts’ about both the threats to the Alliance and the response.  This led to the 2019 NATO Military Strategy (NMS) which is entitled ‘Comprehensive Defence, Shared Response’ (CDSR).  The NATO Military Strategy adopts a whole of security approach and not only frames the development and employment of the Alliance’s Military Instrument of Power (MIoP), but also offers a road-map to the future. There are three core elements to the Strategy. First, it recognises the need for the Alliance to confront again geostrategic competition, as well as the dangers of pervasive instability and the strategic shocks they can trigger as central to the strategic environment with which NATO must contend. Second, the Strategy identifies Russia and Terrorist Groups (TGs) as the main strategic threats to the Alliance, given their depth, breadth, duration and complexity. Third, the Strategy recognises the need to move away from Crisis Response and both contest and counter these threats by developing a common capacity for competition and deterrent power in peacetime, crisis and defence. Critically, whilst NATO remains a defensive Alliance the 2019 Military Strategy also moves the Alliance from having a reactive posture to a deliberate strategy for force deployment and employment.

The DDA emerged from the Military Strategy under General Wolters, the current SACEUR to act as the bridge between the Military Strategy and is called (by me) the NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept (NSIOC).  This is because DDA is about the core business of credible defence and deterrence: warfighting in the Twenty-First Century. As such the DDA provides NATO with a coherent framework and approach to such a challenge by addressing military deterrence activities in peacetime and defence actions in crisis and conflict. DDA also addresses scale of threats and ambition of response by considering Alliance roles and tasks around ‘360 degrees’ of large-scale, long-term complexity. Critically, it also seeks to address something your correspondent has long been pushing for: strategic interdependency between the Alliance’s ability to address threats from Russia inside its area of responsibility (AOR), and Terrorist Groups outside its AOR.

Above all, DDA is an Alliance effort to fully understand that complex nature of modern warfare as a contest, where deterrence must demonstrate an informed and unambiguous ability to defend, whilst defence will demand control of several geographic areas and multiple domains of warfare simultaneously.  Critically, the DDA is analysis-led not cost-led and focuses on how Russia and Terrorist Groups not only gain geographic, domain and readiness advantage, but also how they operate over space and time. To that end, the DDA establishes clear geographic and domain Deterrence and Defence Objectives (mapped to activity) that would also impose tactical, operational and strategic dilemmas on adversaries.  As I understand it, China is not discussed at great length but the methodology could be applied to such an end.  The increasing role of advanced civilian-generated technology (AI, big data, quantum computing, Nano, bio etc. and et al) is also not addressed directly but is implicit.  

Exercise Joint Warrior 2020 must be judged against the backdrop of both the DDA and the NATO Military Strategy. What does it suggest about Joint Warrior 2030? Impressive though such NATO exercises may appear as a news item, power is relative and the maritime-amphibious domain is but one domain of Allied deterrent and defence effect that will need to be credible across air, sea, land, space, cyber, information and knowledge. In other words, the DDA opens the door to a smart NATO that all such exercises must contribute to by combining firepower, resiliency, manoeuvre and innovation.  Indeed, the DDA reimagines deterrence by denial so that is not simply a function of weight of force, but through active and hyper-fast reinforcement of what are known as ‘Fires’ (both multi-platform & multi-domain) held at depth and distanced underpinned by agile and robust command and control. As such, the DDA demands far greater and far more dynamic force readiness and responsiveness that will be critical to the multi-speed, multi-scale, multi-domain NATO that must be developed in the years to come as part of a future war NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept. 

Exercise Joint Warrior 2030

Exercise Joint Warrior 2030 has two distinct elements both critical to the high-end testing of both its maritime and amphibious elements. Much of the NATO Task Group is comprised of forces assigned to the new Allied Command Operations Heavy Mobile Force, some 90% of which is European.  The maritime element first establishes an air, sea and sub-surface defensive ‘bubble’ around the force using both manned and unmanned systems. F35 Lightning 2s, together with a raft of ‘loyal wingmen’ drones, also provide an extensive ‘umbrella’ for the force as well as undertaking a range of hyper-joint tasks ranging from surveillance to electronic hyper warfare, data gathering and aerial top cover. Below the surface British and French nuclear attack submarines, with their ‘loyal school’ of underwater unmanned vehicles, provide a similar defensive bubble supported by super-quiet Dutch and German electric-powered submarines. 

The amphibious element is where the changes in NATO materiel and doctrine of the last decade are most obvious. Some miles offshore a wave of landing craft and CB90 assault craft depart the British heavy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales and stealthily make their way to the shore.  At the spear-tip of the force is 45 Commando, Royal Marines, US Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade and the Royal Netherlands Mariniers, together with the new AI-enabled Joint Commando Air-Maritime Assault Force. Most of the force continues to the beach undetected, but halfway into the target part of the force veers away. From the decks of the assault craft ghostly figures ascend to the heavens.  3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines is going into action.  Equipped with the latest Mark 5 Gravity Jet assault suits the battalion represents the future of airborne assault As each commando rises into the night sky s/he carries an assault rifle and a series of small ground attack missiles. Heavier personal equipment is carried alongside by a personally-assigned ‘intelligent’ lift drone.   

As the Commandos begin the assault a further phalanx of ‘intelligent’ fast strike drones lift off the decks of the British aircraft carrier and make their way towards the littoral. Royal Air Force,  Royal Navy and US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning 2s are also warming up on the deck to reinforce the shock the Royal Marines, Special Air Service and Special Boat Squadron are about to inflict.  Timed to match the moment of the enemy’s least readiness and thus create maximum shock and confusion, the SAS and SBS force move towards their respective objectives.  As they advance flying commandos appear from several directions at once and target each individually identified ‘mark’, whilst a swarm of AI drones probe and then penetrate enemy defences destroying their digital net. The Special Forces, now supported by the ground force, quickly seize the objective and establish a bridgehead for the follow-on force. Fleet Air Arm Merlin 3 helicopters with advanced noise suppression blades move in behind the intelligent machine attack drone ‘swarm’ so that the Royal Marines and their US and Dutch counterparts can maintain momentum from the Littoral.   

Fantasy? Some years ago I led a significant project for the commander of an important Allied navy into the future of so-called ‘brown water operations’. Entitled Effect in the All Water Battlespace: Riverine Operations the essence of the report was how best to fight and stay in a contested Littoral environment and at the same time reduce the cost per naval platform per operation through innovation, adaptation and a strategic partnership with key civilian actors, such as the Smit Tak and Mammoet.  To meet its goals the study combined strategy, innovation and technology to form new partnerships and ideas. Two key findings were that a) many civilian contractors are used to operating in contested zones; and b) much of the technology available to such contractors was far in advance of their military counterparts. The ultimate aim was to understand how an essentially European force could better fulfil its mission in the Littoral as quickly, effectively, affordably and successfully as part of what is known in the jargon as ‘ship to objective manoeuvre’. In other words, the report thought future. That is precisely what others are now doing. 

As Exercise Joint Warrior got underway another exercise was taking place, albeit on a wholly different scale. On October 1st, China’s National Day, a large-scale amphibious ‘invasion’ began which was designed to simulate an assault on Taiwan.  The exercise was a test of a People’s Liberation Army Navy Marines Corp that is currently being expanded from a 20,000 strong force of naval infantry into a power projection force modelled on the US Marines Corps some 100,000 strong. The PLANMC is indicative of the fast change underway around the world and places Europe’s increasing strategic unworldliness in stark relief. 

If NATO is to remain relevant it needs more than a new Strategic Concept. It needs a NATO Strategic Integrated Operating Concept and a NATO Europe Future Force that can demonstrate to themselves and their American allies that Europeans are at last willing to pull their strategic weight, meet the associated costs and take the necessary risks. Given the growing world-wide commitments of America’s over-stretched forces the credibility of Alliance defence and deterrence need nothing less. A good start? NATO HQ starts promoting the Concept for the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area rather than trying to hide it!

Julian Lindley-French