Is NATO a Maginot Line?

“We could hardly dream of building a kind of Great Wall of France, which would in any case be far too costly. Instead we have foreseen powerful but flexible means of organising defence, based on the dual principle of taking full advantage of the terrain and establishing a continuous line of fire everywhere”.

Andre Maginot, 1929

NATO’s deterrence hole 

November 2nd, 2021. Sometimes history, theory, drama and reality combine.  As I write, Russia’s elite 1st Guards Tank Army and the 41st Combined Arms Army are moving and massing, again causing concern in Kiev and at NATO HQ. Last week, I delivered the Band of Brothers speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V during the St Crispin’s Night dinner at the Cavalry and Guards Club in London.  On Thursday, I took part in Allied Command Transformation’s Concept Development and Experimentation Conference and considered Future War and the Defence of Europe (funny that!).  Is NATO a latter day Maginot Line?  No.  However, the Alliance urgently needs to close the gap between the theory of deterrence and the reality if it is not to become like the August 1939 Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland.  It might have been mutual but it was not of much assistance to Poland. Empty deterrence? 

Deterrence is always a trade-off between history, politics, technology and money but sometimes such trade-offs create a deterrence hole because they convince democratic leaders they are more secure than they are.  Take Andre Maginot. He was the French Minister of War who gave his name to France’s ill-fated anti-German Maginot Line.  His vision of a “powerful but flexible means of organising defence, based on the dual principle of taking full advantage of the terrain and establishing a continuous line of fire everywhere” was delusional.  Indeed, the Maginot Line was a military-strategic folly, an illusion of power that gave a sense of false security to those who it was meant to protect.  It was also quickly overtaken by technology and the changing character of warfare.  It was also an extremely expensive illusion of safety that between 1930 and 1939 cost some three billion francs. The Maginot Line was also too short for fear of offending the Belgians who in 1936 declared neutrality and ended all co-operation with France to extend it.  In 1914, the Imperial German Army carried out a grand strategic flanking movement on the French and British armies by attacking through Belgium.  Lesson learned?  In May 1940, Hitler did exactly the same and, apart from a brief but decisive battle at Sedan, the Maginot Line did not so much fail as was by-passed.  In the end the entire system of fortifications surrendered to a Wehrmacht that approached it from a direction it was not designed to defend, behind. 

At last month’s Riga Conference I spoke with several senior commanders and came away with a profound sense of Maginot unease about NATO’s fitness for its core deterrence business.  My historian’s sense is that NATO today is becoming a bit like France’s Maginot Line in 1940 or Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in 1944; a thin forward deployed crust which if broken through would reveal little more than a large, effectively undefended space.  Like the mayhem caused by Panzergruppe Kleist in May 1940 a powerful air-mobile-tank force could exploit that space long before Allied forces were able to move up in the required strength to counter them. In such circumstances, NATO’s defence mission would quickly turn into a rescue mission and possibly all-out-war. Of course, neither Daladier’s government in 1939 nor (thankfully) Hitler had nuclear weapons, but given that any Russian action would likely be ‘limited’ in both scope and ambition (although not for the people in its way) the use of NATO’s strategic nuclear deterrent simply lacks credibility much as British offers of mutual assistance to Poland in 1939. A deterrence hole.

Filling NATO’s deterrence hole 

NATO’s deterrence hole is not simply due to a lack of forces in sufficient strength in the right place. HQ Multinational Corps Northeast is based at Szczecin, Poland and under the command of the excellent LTG Wojchiekowski. It is also NATO’s “unblinking eye” on its eastern flank and just took part in Exercise Steadfast Jupiter. However, ‘MNC NE’ is also some 1500 hundred kilometres from the British battlegroup in Estonia that forms part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP).  Why?  Like the Maginot Line MNC NE’s area of responsibility is also a consequence of a false understanding of both history and politics. Some Allies are extremely wary about placing forces in any strength on the territory of Allies that are also former Warsaw Pact countries for fear of breaking some tryst with Russia.  First, there is no and never was such a tryst.  Second, even if there had been President Putin abandoned any rights to have any say over NATO deployments in Europe when he invaded Crimea in 2014.  Russian forces are also growing in strength in Belarus and its Baltic enclave Kaliningrad, as well as opposite the three Baltic States and for the second time this year are threatening Ukraine and the wider Black Sea Region.  NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence is precisely that, a presence not a deterrent and what lies behind it, the NATO Response Force (NRF) is simply not big enough, heavy enough, responsive enough nor exercised enough to fill NATO’s deterrent hole given what it might face.  

The NRF is a 20,000 strong multinational force comprising air, sea, land, maritime and Special Operations (SOF) tasked with reacting at short notice to all and any emergencies across the Euro-Atlantic area, including an Article 5 contingency.  However, Europe is a very different place to 2004 when the NRF was formed and although it was ‘enhanced’ in 2014 with the creation of the 5000 strong Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) the personnel came from within its ranks.  Enhancing is not strengthening and the NRF increasingly looks like the EU’s CSDP, a force conceived in a different age for a different world with NATO’s ‘rapid’ response looking less and less so given the rapidly changing character of war. Whilst the VJTF is supposed to be able to react within anywhere between 48 hours and 5 days, the rest of the NRF could take anywhere up to 30 days, whilst the 40,000 strong Initial Follow-on Group could take between 60 to 90 days to move.  An analysis of recent Russian exercises suggests that Moscow has deliberately designed its forces to get inside NATO’s battle rhythm and cause self-sustained mayhem for 30 days or so, but face growing problems thereafter. In other words, there is a dangerous symbiosis developing between Russia’s limited military strength and NATO’s limited military posture.

The Allied Command Operations Mobile Heavy Force (AMHF)

The consequences is that the Enhanced Forward Presence is a trip wire to nothing, a thin crust of deterrence much like the Maginot Line and the Atlantic Wall, a potentially fatal weakness further exacerbated by the growing over-stretch of US forces world-wide which is eroding the Alliance’s military backbone. To plug this deterrence hole NATO needs to infill SACEUR’s area of responsibility and urgently.  NATO needs to consolidate its various rapid response forces into one single pool of forces supported by the requisite force structure and enablers, with a likely centre of gravity somewhere in Poland, an Allied Command Operations Allied Mobile Heavy Force or AMHF. This new essentially European NATO force would need to be supported by Polish forces, US V Corps at Poznan and the German-led Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) at Ulm. The AMHF force would act as the deterrent showcase for an Alliance-wide sea-bed to space future force multi-domain force concept designed to operate across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge.  As such, the AMHF would act as deterrence reinsurance but would look north, east, south-east and south across a range of contingencies, including transnational threats.  It could also bolster European strategic responsibility by being able to operate under either a NATO or an EU flag. 

This AMHF would also be living proof of more equitable transatlantic burden-sharing with its main purpose to act as a high-end, first responder force sufficiently robust and responsive, and held at a sufficient level of readiness, to meet all and any threats to the territory of the European theatre.  AMHF would build on the VJTF and NRF, as well as other very high readiness forces that emerge from the NATO Readiness Initiative.  By merging these forces into the AMHF it would also better enable NATO to better exploit emerging and disruptive technologies such as envisioned in the new NATO Artificial Intelligence Strategy.  To that end, the AMHF would be vital for the introduction into the NATO Order of Battle of the stuff of future war, such as artificial intelligence, super/quantum computing, big data, machine-learning, drone swarming, and hypersonic weapon systems.  This is because by 2030 NATO’s capacity to engage in hyper-fast warfare will be vital to NATO’s future deterrence. Above all, the AMHF would act as the vital technology transmission with high-end US forces and thus enable NATO’s European pillar to operate both autonomously and maintain a high degree of interoperability with the fast evolving US military. By 2030, at the very latest and at the very minimum, the AMHF would need to be Corps-sized.

Where to begin?  One option would be to return the British-led HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (HQ ARRC) back to the Continent from its current base at Innsworth in the west of England.  It was a profound mistake to move HQ ARRC out of its base at Rheindahlen in Germany a decade ago, and I said so at the time.  Rather, HQ ARRC could become the command, control and development hub for the AMHF. Yes, it would cost the British money, but it would also reinforce Britain’s enduring commitment to the peace of Europe in the wake of Brexit.  Whilst it would take time for the AMHF to reach Full Operating Capability (FOC) an Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by, say, 2023 could be to stand up an all-arms Task Force built around an armoured brigade.  Even at ‘IOC’ the AMHF would still need attack and lift helicopters, engineers, rocket and field artillery, as well as signals, intelligence, logistics, cyber and missile force protection.  ‘Heavy Mobility’ would also mean very significant self-deployable amounts of equipment suited for the full spectrum of AMHF missions, as well as C-UAS (counter unmanned aerial systems) and ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance).   

The Alternative?  

In 1929, war in Europe must have seemed as remote to Andre Maginot as it does to so many Europeans today.  Hitler was still a political lunatic on the far right of the German body politic. Then came the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression which suddenly and fundamentally changed the very nature of power and politics in Europe.  Since 2008, Europe has seen the Great Financial Crash and the pandemic which has profoundly weakened Europe and again threatens to change the nature of its politics. The one truism that holds about President Putin is that if he generates power, or other Europeans give it to him, sooner or later he will use it. The main purpose of NATO is to stop that.  Indeed, that is why NATO is in the deterrence not the defence business. So, NATO must do whatever it takes to deter and that means filling its deterrence hole.  Unlike Henry V if defence today fails the result may not be the miracle of Shakespeare’s imaginings, “When, without stratagem,but in plain shock and even play of battle, was ever known so great and little loss

Julian Lindley-French