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NATO’s Clint Eastwood Doctrine

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

“I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

Clint Eastwood explains deterrence by denial

Abstract

The new NATO Strategic Concept is clear, concise, and considered and does exactly what it sets out to do: communicate Allied seriousness about deterrence and defence. It has been published against the backdrop of a major war in Europe and like all such documents is a trade-off between what needs to be done and what can be afforded with transatlantic burden-sharing and European strategic responsibility central to its ethos. The Strategic Concept is one half of a two part strategic realignment of NATO and should ideally be read in conjunction with the NATO Military Strategy. Unfortunately, the Military Strategy is classified.  It adds much of the detail implicit in the Strategic Concept and the NATO 2030 Agenda. There are two critical future NATO deterrence and defence components; lessons for the near term from the Ukraine War and future force interoperability going forward and the balance between technology and manpower. What matters now is that the strategic momentum generated is maintained and the goals and missions both implicit and explicit in the Strategic Concept and the Military Strategy are realised by the European allies, for whom the Madrid Summit was a call to legitimate arms. If so, the NATO Madrid Summit will pass the Riga Test and the good citizens therein can sleep easy in their beds. Time will tell.

The Riga Test

July 5th. That was the week that was! For many years I have had the distinct honour of attending the wonderful Riga Conference. Each year I set the Riga Test: can the good citizens of Riga sleep easier in their beds than last year.  In 2021, I had my concerns having predicted the war in Ukraine but worried by the continued ‘we only recognise as much threat’ as we can afford defence policies of many NATO European allies and the wilful ignoring of the Russian threat.  In the wake of last week’s NATO Madrid Summit I am somewhat more reassured, but there can be no complacency.

The NATO Deterrence Summit in Madrid was a much needed dose of Allied strategic realism because it committed the Alliance to re-generate a credible and relevant threat to use force against a strategic peer competitor if necessary, implied the will and future capability to do so, together with an understanding of the need for the demonstrable speed to act allied to a clear capacity to inflict punishment. Consequently, NATO’s traditional posture of deterrence by punishment is once again to be reinforced by ‘Go ahead. Make my day’ deterrence. The tragic and criminal slaughter of Ukrainian citizens by Russian forces means it is no longer acceptable to aspire merely to ‘rescue’ the citizens of Allied countries after some possibly 180 days of occupation. Now, the fight will be taken forward against any aggressor from the moment they set a foot on NATO soil. This is important because one of the many lessons of the Ukraine War is that if Russia ever did attack NATO territory it would be on a narrow front and designed to exploit a lack of strategic depth.

However, the devil is in the detail and the detail is quite devilish. NATO’s New Force Model is an act of deterrence in its own right but needs to be delivered and quickly.  The plan is that some 300,000 mainly European troops across the continent soon be placed on high alert (not high readiness) but it needs to be delivered. Finland and Sweden’s accession to the Alliance will extend NATO presence on both the northern and eastern flanks requiring a new concept of victory across a much expanded area of responsibility (AOR). Existing NATO forward deployed defences on the alliance’s eastern flank will be increased to the size of a brigade, which is about 3,000 to 5,000 troops in addition to local forces.

The 2022 NATO Strategic Concept

The centre-piece of the summit was the publication of the first NATO Strategic Concept since 2010. The 2022 Strategic Concept is deterrence and defence heavy and thus has the feel of strategic guidance which is what it is for. It also instructs the Alliance to realign core tasks with capabilities post-Afghanistan in a new age of geopolitical competition to which Europeans are finally awakening. To that end, Strategic Concept 2022 re-confirms NATO’s commitment to collective defence and a 360 degree approach built on three core tasks of deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and co-operative security.  It also affirms the importance of resilience of the ‘home’ base.

The basis for future development is the NATO 2030 Agenda agreed at last year’s Brussels summit. The Agenda can be thus summarised; enough forces to deter, engage crises and build partnerships and enough European forces able to respond quickly to any crisis in and around the Euro-Atlantic Area. That is the sum of an agenda that includes deeper and faster political consultation, strengthened defence and deterrence, improved resilience, preservation of NATO’s technical edge, the upholding of the rules-based order, increased training and capacity-building, and the need to combat and adapt to climate change.  

The Strategic Concept also strikes all the right political chords.  NATO’s purpose and common values are all stressed, particularly on women and security. Reference is also made to further command and control reform and the need for digital transformation, with strong passages on cyber, and emerging and disruptive technologies.  The friction over increasing common funding and defence capacity building also seem to have been resolved, whilst it reaffirms the NATO remains a nuclear alliance that also remains committed to a nuclear-free world.

It is also not the first NATO Strategic Concept to be published against the backdrop of a war. In April 1999, the NATO Washington Summit also published a Strategic Concept against the backdrop of the Kosovo War. However, Strategic Concept 2022 bears some resemblance to MC3/5 “The Strategic Concept for the Defence of the North Atlantic Area” of December 1952, which took place against the backdrop of the Korean War. The 1952 Strategic Concept tried to square the same circle as Strategic Concept 2022 – the need to ease US military overstretch with increased European capabilities and capacities in the face of an economic crisis, a Russian aggressor in Europe, and a Chinese regional-strategic competitor. Both in 1952 and 2022 the elephant in the room concerned Germany and the role it would play in Allied defence.

Russia and its invasion of Ukraine pervades all sixteen pages of the Strategic Concept with a marked change of tone compared to the 2010 Strategic Concept which described Russia as a ‘strategic partner’, even though Russia had invaded Georgia two years prior in 2008.  The 2022 Strategic Concept is far less equivocal. “The Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace and gravely altered our security environment. Its brutal and unlawful invasion, repeated violations of international humanitarian law and heinous attacks and atrocities have caused unspeakable suffering and destruction.” China is now a “systemic challenge” and terrorism the “most direct asymmetric threat”. 

Will the rubber hit the road?

Can ambition and reality be aligned? The Military Strategy is centred on SACEUR’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) wide Strategic Plan (SASP) and the Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA).  There are two main pillars, the NATO warfighting cornerstone concept (NWCC) and the Deterrence Concept.  The New Force Model at the heart of the Strategic Concept is the consequence of the Military Strategy and it is there one finds the necessary detail. Specifically the call for the enhanced NATO Response Force of some 40,000 troops to be transformed into a future force of some 300,000 troops maintained at high alert, with 44,000 kept at high readiness. For the first time all rapid reaction forces under NATO command will be committed to a deterrence and defence role and all such forces will be consolidated within one command framework.  Whilst the new force will be held at 24 hours ‘Notice to Act’ the bulk of the NATO Force Structure will held at 15 days ‘Notice to Move’, which will be a marked improvement over the current structure in which some forces are 180 days’ notice to move. 

At American behest the new force will be mainly European with Allies on NATO’s Eastern and South-Eastern Flanks agreeing to expanded deployed battalions to brigades of between 3,000-5000 troops. For example, the British have two battlegroups deployed to Estonia and they have now committed to adding an additional battlegroup. Indeed, the UK will commit an extra 1000 troops and a carrier-strike group (???) to the defence of Estonia, the US will send an additional 3000 troops to the Baltic Sea Region, 2 more squadrons of F-35s will be stationed in the UK and two US Navy destroyers sent to Spain. The new Forward Defence strategy will also see heavy equipment pre-positioned near NATO borders. 

A force of that size and with the necessary level of fighting power would normally mean that with rotation there would always be a force of some 100,000 kept at high readiness, which will be extremely expensive for NATO European allies grappling with high inflation and post-COVID economies. A NATO standard brigade is normally between 3200 and 5500 strong. Given that both air and naval forces will also need to be included a land force of, say, 200,000 would need at least 50 to 60 European rapid reaction brigades together with all their supporting elements. At best, there are only 20 to 30 today. There are already concerns being expressed by some Allies.

That is precisely why Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the NATO Defence Investment Pledge of 2% GDP to be spent by each Ally on defence is now “more of a floor than a ceiling”. Several NATO European allies have now committed to increasing their respective defence budgets accordingly. Germany is leading the way (at last) with its commitment to markedly increase its defence budget which is vital given that the Bundeswehr will in future become the central pillar of NATO land deterrence on the eastern flank. The UK has also committed to spend at least 2.5% GDP on defence “this decade”, whilst the Netherlands has committed to a 5.4% real terms increase in defence expenditure over last year’s defence budget allied to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2024.

The sharing of NATO burdens

Whilst the Strategic Concept is mainly a consequence of Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine, the forthcoming US National Defense Strategy (NDS) is no less important.  For the first time the NDS places a premium on the support of allies and partners, particularly NATO. NDS 2022 also implies a greater role for allies going forward in assisting the US meet its strategic goals and challenges, particularly in and around the European theatre.  This is because China and the Indo-Pacific are afforded a higher priority than Russia and Europe in NDS 2022, even though Russia is described as an “acute threat”. There are also profound implications for the new NATO future force, in particular the challenge of maintaining interoperability in high-end conflicts with the US future force. The US future force will be built on three principles: “integrated deterrence” and credible combat power (including nuclear forces); effective campaigning in the grey zone; and “building enduring advantage” by exploiting new, emerging and disruptive technologies. NATO European forces?

For NATO the message from the Americans is clear: if the US security guarantee for Europe is to be credibly maintained going forward Europeans are going to have to share the defence burdens far more equitably, with 50% of NATO’s minimum capability requirements by 2030 probably the least the Americans will expect of their allies.   That will mean Europeans taking on far more strategic responsibility than hitherto within the framework of the Alliance and all Allies will need to develop an expeditionary mind-set, even the Finns.  In time, greater European strategic responsibility will inevitably lead to capacity for European tactical and eventually strategic autonomy.   

NATO’s Big 2030 Plan

The Strategic Concept and the Military Strategy together are NATO’s Big 2030 Plan. The plan involves two phases much of which will need to run concurrently. Phase one involves identifying and learning the lessons of the Ukraine War to bolster deterrence, defence and resilience in the short-term. War is a giant black hole into which people and materiel vanish at an alarming rate far beyond that envisaged by peacetime establishments. NATO European forces will need for more robust logistics forward deployed, with enhanced and far more secure military supply chains particularly important. Far more materiel is also needed, most notably ammunition. If NATO deterrence and defence are to be credible Allies will also need to rebuild and build infrastructure to assist military mobility and remove all legal impediments to rapid cross border movements in a pre-war emergency. Deployed NATO forces will also need much improved force protection with the need to reduce the detectability and thus digital footprint of force concentrations (‘bright butterflies’). 

The war in Ukraine has also revealed the vulnerability of armour unsupported by infantry and helicopters in the battlespace, as well as the need for NATO forces to be able to dominate both fires and counter-fires.  Much of the vulnerability of Russian forces is due to the effectiveness of expendable drones, strike drones and loitering systems allied to precision-guided munitions. NATO forces need an awful lot more of all such systems across the tactical and the strategic. Enhanced land-based, protected battlefield mobility will also be needed together with increased force command resilience given how often the Ukrainians have been able to detect and ‘kill’ Russian forward (and less forward) deployed headquarters.

Thankfully, given that NATO is a defensive alliance, the war in Ukraine has also revealed the extent to which the defence has dominated the offence if forces are reasonably matched.  Whilst no-one envisages a return to some kind of twenty-first century equivalent of the Maginot Line secure pre-positioned capabilities and access to individual ready reserves will be vital.  There is one other lesson NATO leaders and commanders need to learn given the attritional nature of the war: do not sacrifice significant mass to afford a little manoeuvre. Britain, are you listening?

Beyond NATO’s horizon

NATO must also look beyond 2030 and develop a hard core future war concept if deterrence by denial now enshrined in NATO doctrine is to remain credible. In addition to the Military Strategy the new SACEUR, General Chris Cavioli and his team must also set the future force agenda with something akin to the 1952 Long-Term Defence Plan with the aim of forging a markedly transformed military instrument of power by 2030.  Such a plan will need to include strengthened forces postures, news structures & forces, a much expanded NATO Readiness Initiative with supporting plans & concepts, transformed training & exercises not dissimilar to the famous Battle Schools set up by General Harold Alexander during World War Two, and a proper understanding where capability, capacity, manpower and interoperability meet, especially when it involves new emerging and destructive technologies.

In other words, the true test of Madrid’s legacy will be the standing up of a high-end, collective, US-interoperable, strategically autonomous (if needs be) European-led Allied Mobile Heavy Force able to operate as a powerful first responder in a pre-war emergency in and around Europe and across the domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge from sea-bed to space at the highest levels of conflict complete with its own combat support and enablers.  Nothing less will suffice to meet the ambition implicit in the NATO Strategic Concept.  Are Europeans up to the challenge? Some leaders are already looking to slide out of their respective commitments partly because they never really understand what they have signed up to until their finance ministers present the bill/check. So, here’s a novel idea. Turn the NATO defence planning process on its head. Let the experts identify the defence architecture NATO will need by 2030 and beyond, together with the capabilities, capacities, structures and organisation to support it. Then sit down again and agree how it can be afforded and fielded.

Critics suggest that the Strategic Concept’s conciseness is a weakness, that it is light on facts. What did they expect? NATO’s strategic and political goals are now far more closely aligned with NATO’s Military Strategy, the first such demarche since 1962, implying a new relationship between effectiveness, efficiency and affordability.  Critics also fail to understand the purpose of a Strategic Concept or its relationship with the NATO Military Strategy. A NATO Strategic Concept is essentially a contract between leader and practitioner in which the former instructs the latter what the Alliance must minimally ensure and assure over the coming decade or so and publicly commit to those goals. It is not a public relations document per se, even if it does play such a role. 

In time, the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept could well come to be seen as a landmark document that set the direction of travel for the Alliance in a new “age of strategic competition”, in much the same way as the December 1967 MC14/3. However, that will only happen if the Alliance adopts the “Clint Doctrine”. For that reason Secretary-General Stoltenberg and his team are to be congratulated for being bold. ‘I know what you’re thinking. Did they fire all they have? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world and could blow you clean away, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?’  Fact or fiction?  The real work starts now!

Sleep well, Riga.


Professor Dr. Julian Lindley-French

Putin the Great’s NATO

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

“I have conquered an empire but I have not been able to conquer myself.”

Peter the Great’s Russian Empire, 1721

Putin the Great’s NATO

The war in Ukraine is at a crucial moment. A bloody race is underway in Luhansk between a severely damaged Russian Army and its separatist supporters, and a tired Ukrainian Army that is slowly being reinforced by Western weapons.  It will likely be early July before the schwerpunkt really meets a culminating point in the current phase of the war, but where is NATO? In the one hundred or so days since President Putin launched his brutal invasion of the Alliance has learnt about the capabilities of the Russian armed forces. At the end of June, the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept will be agreed at the Madrid Summit. Finland and Sweden are on the cusp of joining the Alliance, Turkey permitting, and even countries like the Netherlands have now decided to meet the 2% benchmark of the Defence Investment Pledge (albeit briefly) after years of reality-defying resistance.

This week President Putin made a remark that revealed his anachronistic Realpolitik world-view.  Russia, he said, was merely “reclaiming” the lands of Peter the Great. Perhaps the most crucial decision taken by Alliance Heads of State and Government will be the commitment to a new forward defence force posture. There is a kind of paradoxical perverse symbiosis at play in that Putin will finally get the very NATO he has warned against precisely because of his own calamitous and criminal actions. Putin’s world-view can be thus summarised; “I consent to the West’s sphere of influence which includes all existing EU and NATO members, but only on the condition the West consents to Russia’s sphere of influence which includes Ukraine. If the West contests Russia’s sphere of influence I will contest the margins of the West’s sphere’.

NATO and the US National Defense Strategy 2022

Whither NATO? The NATO Strategic Concept is meant to be the driving force of NATO strategy for the next decade or so. However, given the centrality of US forces to the all-important Alliance deterrence and defence policy the new US National Defense Strategy is perhaps a more useful indicator, and more importantly, a better test of the extent to which NATO will need to adapt by 2030 if the Alliance is to remain credible in its core tasks.

The primary mission of National Defence Strategy (NDS) 2022 is to shape and size the US future force and the budget that pays for it. NDS 2022 thus links resources to strategy to force. For the first time NDS 2022 places a particular premium on the support of allies and partners, and thus implicitly NATO. In short, NDS 2022 implies a far greater role for allies going forward in assisting the US meet its strategic goals and challenges, particularly in and around the European theatre. As such, the language in the NDS would certainly be recognisable to those charged with drafting the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept, although NDS 2022 affords China and the Indo-Pacific a higher priority than Russia and Europe, even though it describes Russia as an “acute threat”.

NATO 2030 and NDS 2022

It will be interesting to see if both NATO Agenda 2030 and the NATO Strategic Concept rise to that challenge. If not, there could well be a large funding and capability hole somewhere mid-Atlantic.  Like the NATO Strategic Concept NDS 2022 is quite a smorgasbord. NDS 2022 follows on from NDS 2018 which switched the US strategic emphasis away from strategic counter-terrorism back to great power competition. Consequently, both the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review have also been incorporated into NDS 2022. The four defence priorities reinforce that shift: (1) the pacing, sizing and shaping of the US future force to meet the challenge of China; (2) the importance of credible deterrence against “strategic attacks” and “aggression”; (3) the need to “prevail (not win) in conflict when necessary”; and (4) the creation of a resilient Joint Force and what is called the “defence eco-system”, a complex network of civilian and military stakeholders and partners. Interestingly, increased resilience is not simply limited to deployed force protection, but also applied to the US home base. NDS 2022 emphasises the vital need of the US to be able to recover from mass disruption caused by both “kinetic and non-kinetic threats”. Sub-strategic threats, such as North Korea, Iran and violent extremism are now to be “managed”, whilst “trans-boundary” threats, such as climate change and pandemics, must be “adapted”.

The US future force also affords the NATO future force a clear direction of travel. The force will be built on three principles, “integrated deterrence” and the generation of credible combat power (including nuclear forces), the capacity to undertake effective campaigning in the grey zone; and the need to build “enduring advantage” by exploiting new, emerging and disruptive technologies.

As ever, the utility of NDS 2022 will depend on the public money invested in it by Congress. There are already some indicators. Whilst the agreed budget for the European Deterrence Initiative for FY2023 will be $4.2bn, the ‘Pacific Deterrence Initiative’ will receive $6bn.  For those NATO allies reading the runes of NDS 2022 the message is clear: if the US security guarantee for Europe is to be credibly maintained going forward Europeans are going to have to share the defence burdens far more equitably, with 50% of NATO’s minimum capability requirements by 2030 probably the least the Americans will expect of their allies. 

Military Implications of NDS 2022 for NATO

In 2019, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) General Tod Wolters, produced the first NATO Military Strategy since 1962, with Russia and terrorism identified as the main threats.  The Military Strategy considers the best use of Allied force in the competition phase, crisis phase and conflict phase. Another document, the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area or DDA operationalises the Military Strategy by governing actions inside SACEUR’s area or responsibility (AOR) and relations with partners beyond. The DDA also drives a series of military plans that provide direction for the critical work of the three Joint Force Commands (JFCs) in Brunssum, Naples and Norfolk, Virginia.  With Finland and Sweden soon to join the Alliance a fourth JFC could be established covering the soon-to-be enlarged Northern Flank of the Alliance.  Such a new command would certainly help NATO better align plans with Allies in regions, albeit through yet more bureaucratisation of the NATO Command Structure. Whilst the Joint Force Commands are vital there are still simply too many commands in NATO and not enough force.

Whilst some 90% of SACEUR’s military plans are now complete, it will be the last 10% (as ever) that will prove the most challenging. The task of realising them will fall to the new SACEUR, US Army General Chris Cavioli.  The critical challenge and thus true test of the Alliance given HDS 2022 will be finalising the minimum European military requirements vital to ensuring Allied deterrence and defence remain credible in ALL circumstances, most notably if the Americans are busy elsewhere.

Putin the Great? Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly accelerated and focused NATO defence planning, not least because after some debate the DDA has now been adopted by the North Atlantic Council (NAC). Crucially, more devolved command authority has been given to SACEUR by the NAC which means Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons can now conduct more operations in the competition phase of conflict, thus better preparing the Alliance for both crisis management and war early in the conflict cycle. Further bolstering deterrence is the decision to activate all the graduated response plans (GRPs) and appropriate crisis response operations (CROs) as a direct response to Putin’s aggression. For example, SACEUR now has operational command authority over some 42,000 combat troops, 60 plus warships and 100s of combat aircraft now in Eastern Europe as part of the enhanced NATO Response Force (eNRF).

Forward, Flexible NATO

NATO’s longer-term military posture in the wake of the Russo-Ukraine War is now also being actively considered with Forward Defence and Flexible Response likely to be the mantras. Back to the Future? Since 2019 General Wolters and his Allied team have done a lot to harmonise US and NATO military strategies for the simple vital reason that the Americans remain the hard backbone of Allied forces. NATO authorities also have become markedly bolder than hitherto. A new NATO Military Posture will be adopted at the Madrid Summit that for the first time establishes coherent military command at a level above the forces committed to the Enhanced Forward Presence on NATO’s eastern flank. The new posture will not only help close a command gap between headquarters and deployed forces, but also enable more integrated land, sea, and air operations.

The Alliance and the allies will also further invest in a host of advanced military capabilities in order to meet new and enduring challenges across all operational domains. The aim is for NATO to be able to deliver an array of robust and sophisticated capabilities across all such domains. This will include heavier, more high-end, technologically advanced, and better-supported forces and capabilities at the required state of readiness in sufficient capacity to be rotated effectively for the duration of any crisis. The Alliance will also continue to improve and adapt the sustainability, deployability, and interoperability of its forces at the higher end of the conflict spectrum in a demanding strategic environment, particularly the conduct of high-end operations. National capability development plans will support the full and timely generation of such capabilities, in line with the NATO Defence Planning Process.

Job Done?

However, far more needs to be done by the Alliance.  The NATO Command and Force Structure remains untested. The NATO Readiness Initiative needs to be markedly expanded. The release mechanisms by which national forces are placed under SACEUR’s command need to be harmonised, streamlined and much accelerated. There is also a command and force ‘hole’ to NATO’s south-east in the Black Sea Region.  In short, those inside the NATO bubble need to stop believing their own rhetoric and stop trying to convince the rest of us to follow suit. A good start would be to properly learn the lessons of the Ukraine War, not least the vital need for sufficient stocks of munitions given how quickly modern war eats them up.  War stocks are a vital indicator of credible deterrence.

Above all, NATO really needs to begin thinking far more cogently about future war, the new battlespace beyond 2030 and the very concept of deterrence and defence in the twenty-first century. The automisation and digitisation of warfare across the mosaic of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar will accelerate and possibly exponentially. Above all, the NATO European Allies need to deliver on what they promise. If not, Putin the Great could one day seek to fill the hole between NDS 2022 and the NATO Strategic Concept.

So, good start NATO but much, much more needs to be done. Still none of the above would have been possible without the incompetent ‘statecraft’ of the distinctly un-great President Putin who desperately wants an empire because he is unable to conquer himself.


By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

Putin’s Ground Truth?

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach

Joseph Stalin

Ground Truth?

May 10th, 2022. What is Putin’s Weltanschaaung? What is his ground truth? To understand that one needs to reach back into Russia’s tragic past and understand the Russian elite’s obsession with the West, primarily Germany, and their tawdry belief that the lands in-between are little more than pawns in their never-ending addiction to incompetent Realpolitik.

Victory Day, or Den Pobedy as the Russians would have it, did not see Putin declare all-out war on Ukraine, although his speech was a catalogue of lies about NATO, Nazis, nukes and the existential threat from no-one Russia apparently faces. Putin needs an existential threat to Russia precisely because he offers precious little else to the Russian people. Victory Day is not just about the Great Patriotic War. It is also a metaphor for the creation of the Soviet empire that subjugated much of Central and Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989 in the guise of ‘liberating’ Europeans from Nazism.  That latter reflection is perhaps the most important takeaway from this year’s underwhelming parade given the tragedy Putin is inflicting on Ukraine.  The fact that General Valery Gerasimov was unable to attend because he is in hospital recovering from his wounds is almost another metaphor for Putin’s hopeless and desperate gamble.

Victory Day had been meant to commemorate Putin’s strategic victory in the Ukraine War and the imposition of his nationalistic Soviet-style, anti-Nazi ideology on the Ukrainian people. Instead, it was an essentially defensive exercise in political expectation management.  This is because Putin’s ground truth is driven by his own survival in a country that has no mechanism for peaceful political change or the ability to adapt. Take Britain. A century ago the British ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen but soon lost it.  Britain adapted and became a modern European liberal democracy. The problem for Putin and Russia is an inability to adapt to a changing world.

War and peace

What are the lessons from history? Firstly, it is not Muscovite liberals who worry Putin, much though the West wishes it. It is the ultra-nationalists to Putin’s (hard-to-believe) political right who really do believe in Stalin’s maxim that all that matters is how far the Russian Army can reach.  Thankfully for much of Europe, and only for the moment, it is not very far, but it will not always be so. A study of Russian military history suggests that whilst the Kremlin finds it hard to adapt, given time the Russian General Staff does not.

Implicit in Putin’s Victory Day speech was an inferiority complex with the ‘West’ from which Russian leaders have suffered at least as far as Peter the Great and the seventeenth century. This is evident in Putin’s repeated references to past Russian heroes, such as Alexander Nevsky and the struggle against the Teutonic Knights, and even if Prince Grigori Potemkin would have been more appropriate.

However, it is Russia’s tortured twentieth century history which is most relevant to Putin’s Weltanschaaung, particularly Moscow’s complicated, duplicitous, Realpolitik relations with Germany. Indeed, Putin’s Realpolitik can be traced back to one event: the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Lenin’s Bolshevik regime felt as much aggrieved by the Treaty of Versailles as Weimar Germany.  Both Moscow and Berlin believed the terms imposed on them by the victorious World War One allies, several of whom supported the anti-Bolshevik Russian White Army in the 1919 civil war, were unduly harsh.  The tipping point was the failed 1922 Treaty of Genoa.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George was all-too aware that Versailles far from ending the war to end all wars would simply delay another blood reckoning in Europe and endeavoured to bring all the European powers together at the Conference of Genoa to give the League of Nations some teeth.  However, with the absence of the United States and France’s reluctance Lloyd George’s demarche was always going to be a long shot.

Even as Lloyd George was prematurely celebrating the success of his new European security order at Genoa Russia and Germany were meeting secretly at Rapallo where they established ‘friendly relations’ based on Germany’s need for raw materials and Russia’s supply of it. Nothing new there then. Rapallo also had secret clauses, which were meant to have been outlawed by Versailles that led to the Germans being offered facilities in Russia to test both tanks and aircraft illegal under Versailles.  The tank testing centre was led by one Heinz Guderian who twenty years later would come back with his panzer armies to devastate the Soviet Union.

In spite of the 1925 Treaty of Locarno at which Britain and France sought to normalise relations with Weimar Germany and in return for the confirmations of post-Versailles borders the Russo-German accord doomed Europe to catastrophe. Taken together with the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the failed World Disarmament Conference between 1932 and 1934, US isolationism and British and French impoverishment Genoa, Rapallo and Locarno set a fragile pattern for European security relations in the interbellum and beyond.  In the self-willed absence of the United States from Europe, Britain and France simply lacked the power and the will to engage in European Realpolitik, not least because of their focus on vulnerable global empires.  In the vacuum Germany, the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s equally aggrieved fascist Italy set about revising the European order in their favour. For much of the interbellum the British and French political establishments saw Bolshevism and the Soviet Union as the major threat to the established European order.

And then came Hitler. It became increasingly obvious in the wake of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the Anschluss in 1938 that the fragile European order would soon collapse. Fearing a repeat of 1914-1918 only British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain continued to harbour naïve hopes that Hitler could be convinced of the merits of disarmament. France, meanwhile, had politically imploded during the Popular Front governments. As it became ever clearer that Nazi Germany intended to destroy Versailles by force if need be a race developed between Britain and France and Stalin’s Soviet Union to ensure that Hitler would attack the other first.

The land in between

The victims of this European Great Game were the lands in between and its icon was Munich.  First, in September 1938 Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the ‘peace in our time’ Munich agreement by which Chamberlain believed he had bought off Hitler with the Sudetenland. Second, when it became clear that Hitler also wanted ‘lebensraum’ in Poland and Ukraine Stalin began to see the threat. Third, firm in their belief that Bolshevism and Nazism were such mortal enemies London and Paris naively believed they might form some form of pact with the Soviet Union to contain Hitler. They thought Stalin would be amenable to such a pact because he had just decimated the senior command of the Red Army through purges.  In 1939 the Russians were also humiliated by the Finns on the Mannerheim Line in circumstances of incompetence eerily similar to today’s Ukraine War.

However, Hitler and Stalin were also the ultimate practitioners of Realpolitik in spite of their fundamental ideological struggle.  In August 1939, much to the shock of Britain and France, they signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (named after their respective foreign ministers of the time) even as a British military mission was in Moscow. The Pact not only ensured that Hitler would first seek to drive Britain and France out of the war, it also sealed the brutal fate of the lands in between Germany and Russia. At Brest in September 1939 Poland was divided up between Germany and the Soviet Union, under the terms of yet another secret protocol, whilst in June 1940 Stalin invaded the Baltic States.

Perhaps the most telling echo of the past, albeit the reverse of Germany’s thinking in 2022, was Stalin’s belief that Hitler’s economic dependence on the Soviet Union was the best security guarantee. After all, in early 1941 the Soviet Union supplied 74% of Germany’s phosphate, 67% of its asbestos, and 65% of its chrome, 55% of its manganese, 40% of its nickel and 35% of its oil, all of which were vital for the conduct of Hitler’s war in the West.  In January 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union even signed a new trade agreement that made Berlin reliant upon Moscow for 70% of its trade. And yet, in June 1941 Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union.  For three days Stalin was paralyzed by shock.

Just in case or Just in time?

What of today? Those in the West calling for a cease-fire should be careful not to again confuse diplomacy with appeasement and simply confirm Russia in its ill-gotten gains. Those same people must also be careful not to see Ukraine as a large country faraway about which we know little, a la Chamberlain. The 2022 Ukraine War, for that is what it is, is resetting the strategic and geopolitical context of NATO, Europe and the wider world. As I told NATO ambassadors Putin is forcing the world of globalised just-in-time back to the hard Realpolitik of just-in-case. He is reminding European leaders who have for too long abandoned sound defence of the dangers of being seduced by economists who do not understand that power and coercion can exist independently of supply and demand.

Today, the Western allies must thus again confront two potentially existential questions that are red in tooth and claw. How can peace be preserved? How can NATO deterrence and defence really deter and defend into the future? European history is again entering a darkened room and it is vital that all the democracies go forward together with a mind-set robust enough, collective enough and ambitious enough to stop the corrupt, cynical and corrosive regime in Moscow that was on show on May 9th. Facing down Putin’s Weltanschaaung (and China if it so chooses to be an enemy) will take a unity of effort and purpose not seen since NATO’s formation.

Given that the West now faces a choice. Force Ukraine to accept Putin’s ground truth on Ukraine’s ground and thus enable Moscow to impose its system as far as Putin’s army can reach, or commit to a clear set of strategic aims that culminate with the return eventually to the restoration of Ukraine’s borders. If Ukraine is forced to face a frozen stalemate on Russian terms those in Western Europe who imposed it on Kyiv will be the natural heirs of Chamberlain and any such ‘accord’, far from being a success of diplomacy merely the latest ‘peace in our time’ appeasers.  Why not sign it in Munich?

However, before any longer term strategy can be established it is vital Ukraine is given the means to resist the latest Russian offensive. Specifically, that means denying the Russians success in the first phase of their current operation, the seizure of an axis that links Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhina, Kostyantyniska, and Donetsk, which if successful would turn a salient into a pocket enabling Russian air power to destroy Ukrainian regular army formations, much like the destruction of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group B in the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Without securing that objective the Russians will be unable to conduct phase 2 of the offensive and the clear-out of Ukrainian forces up to the Donetsk Oblast border. Only when this offensive has succeeded/failed can ‘we’ (whomsoever that is going forward) properly tailor Western support over campaign time and space. What matters now is maintaining the coherence, manoeuvre and counter-attack fighting power of engaged Ukrainian forces.

The simple and tragic truth about Putin’s ground truth is that once again it is the lands in between who are paying the ultimate price for Russia’s geopolitical folly, malpractice, paranoia and sheer incompetence. Putin’s ‘ground truth’ is in fact no truth and his Weltanschaaung is the corrupt view of a corrupt history by a corrupt elite.   NATO’s job is to ensure that the Russian Army can only impose the Russian system within Russia’s legitimate borders now and into the future.

VSF 2022: Ukraine Guidance

by

Julian Lindley-French

January 20th, 2022. Yesterday, I had the honour of addressing the excellent Vilnius Security Conference to consider Ukraine and the “most probable and dangerous course of action”. My approach was to prepare guidance to ministers focussed on the military-strategic and politico-strategic implications of Russian aggression and available policy options to the Euro-Atlantic community over the short-term (now), medium-term (2025) and the longer-term (2030).  The guidance below is based on my Vilnius remarks. Next Tuesday The Alphen Group’s new Shadow NATO Strategic Concept will be presented to NATO senior staff in Brussels (it will be publicly-launched by the German Marshall Fund, the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute on Feb 3rd.). Many of the recommendations in the Shadow Strategic Concept are relevant to generating the proportionate but clear NATO-centric response that are needed now and in the aftermath of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

PART ONE: ASSESSMENT

Russia’s immediate aim is to consolidate its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and thus force Kiev into compliance with Moscow’s European strategy by whatever coercive means necessary, including the possible use of large-scale military forces. All the evidence suggests some form of invasion is imminent. On January 18th the US and UK confirmed that all the necessary Russian forces were in position to launch an invasion of Ukraine, including all the necessary Battalion Tactical Groups, enablers, combat support and combat support services.   A Russian attack would be likely to take place along the Chernihiv-Mariupol Axis and designed to ‘slice’ much of eastern Ukraine away from the rest of the country.  Russia would probably justify its invasion as a humanitarian act to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority. The occupied area would become a Russian ‘protectorate’ before it is eventually offered the status of a Russian province by the Duma.  If successful, such a strategy would give Russia complete control of the Sea of Azov, enable it to seize the port of Mariupol and provide a secure land bridge between Crimea, Sevastopol and Russia. 

There is still time using diplomatic channels for the Western Allies toconvince the Russian leadership that the complex strategic coercion it is applying against Ukraine, and by extension Allies and partners, is bound to fail.  However, such an approach would require Euro-Atlantic solidarity and whilst there might be some scope for a good cop (France, Germany and Italy), bad cop (US, Poland, UK) stratagem, it is more likely Moscow would see that as weakness. In that light, President Macron’s suggestion that the EU should seek a separate security pact with Russia is more likely to divide the EU than open up a new political path for Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine’s borders without losing face. Given the gravity of the situation any agreed policy must thus be both bilateral and NATO-focussed based on a determination that the free nations and peoples of the Euro-Atlantic area remain committed to a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with the Russian Federation built on the principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. However, any such dialogue with Russia must also send a clear message to Moscow that the Alliance will always maintain a force posture to ensure credible defence and deterrence for all of the Alliance, and that Russian aggression and the illegal use of force will have profound consequences for Russia.  

PART TWO: MILITARY-STRATEGIC SITUATION

On paper Ukrainian forces could put up a good fight in the event of another Russian invasion of their country, but in reality they are hopelessly out-matched. There are an estimated 130,000 Russian troops deployed along the Ukrainian border from near Hornyel in Belarus to the Crimea.  There are also some 32,000 Russian and separatist troops in occupied eastern Ukraine, as well as 80,000 deep strike formations and reserves held back from the border on a jump-off line running north-south centred on Voronezh.  Crucially, elite Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) have now been deployed along the border, supported by field hospitals and other combat support and combat support services.  At present there are 50 BTGs in situ. These are Putin’s shock-troops and are organised into 168 BTGs and have a ‘grab and hold’ function and are designed to link up with Spetsnaz forces and thus act as a link between Special Operating Forces and the bulk of the Russian Army.

Ukraine has 209,000 active duty troops against 900,000 Russian, although not all Russian troops are facing Ukraine, whilst Ukraine has 900,000 reserves against some 2,000,000 Russian reserves.  Ukraine also has 858 tanks against Russia’s 2,840 tanks and 1,818 artillery pieces against Russia’s 4,684. However, whilst Ukrainian forces would continue to fight doggedly and with great courage the relatively flattering force comparison is in many ways false. The training, quality and equipment of Russian elite formations facing Ukraine is far superior. This is because Russia spends $43.2 billion (and probably far more) on defence compared with Ukraine’s annual defence outlay of circa $4.3 billion. Consequently, Russia has 1,160 modern combat aircraft plus other sophisticated drone, missile and other remote and increasingly autonomous ‘kill box’ technologies against Ukraine’s 125 ageing aircraft. By way of further comparison, Russia also has 15 mainly advanced frigates in the Russian Navy compared with Ukraine’s 1 ageing frigate.

The US and other Allies have offset that balance by offering equipment and training to Ukrainian forces, but only to a limited extent. The US has provided $2.5 billion of military assistance to Ukraine since 2014. That has been spent mainly on defensive systems such as small arms and munitions and more advanced systems such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and given two refitted former US Coast Guard patrol boats to the Ukrainians. This week the UK delivered light anti-tank weapons to Kiev. Washington is also considering supplying Soviet-made mi-17 helicopter gunships that served with the Afghan National Army.

Russia’s possible military objectives

It is not possible to read President Putin’s mind, but it is possible to assess Russia’s military strength and posture. There would appear to be two possible objectives and an alternative: 

  1. The US believes the strategic objective could be Kiev and the toppling of the Zelensky government, the release of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko from prison where he is awaiting trial for treason, and Zelensky’s replacement with a puppet government, possibly led by Poroshenko. 
  • Kiev is a feint designed to pin the bulk of Ukrainian forces down defending the seat of Ukrainian government. Any attack on Kiev could involve Russian forces in urban warfare for an extended period.  Memories of Russian atrocities in Grozny would be rekindled both in Russia and beyond. 
  • Russia could conduct an extensive cyber war against Ukraine, starve the country of energy and blockade Ukrainian ports.

PART THREE: POLITICO-STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS

Politico-strategic implications

The future political and strategic orientation of Ukraine has profound implications for the future security of Europe, most notably Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  There are three possible options:

  1. Ukraine decides to move towards the EU and NATO;
  2. Ukraine remains determinedly neutral in much the same way as Switzerland, but not in the manner of Ireland, Sweden or Finland; or
  3. Russia succeeds in installing a puppet government in Kiev and Ukraine tips decisively towards Moscow, in the manner of Belarus.

The third implication is clearly Moscow’s strategic desire. It is in that light the Russian ‘offer’ of a new European security treaty must be seen.  There are three possible interpretations of Moscow’s unacceptable demands therein none of which are mutually exclusive. First, they are designed to test the resolve and cohesion of the Alliance. Second, the willingness of the Americans to negotiate with Russia over the heads of their European allies and Ukrainian partners about their respective critical interests, and thus re-establish a Cold War precedent.  Third, they are designed to fail and thus provide Moscow with a casus belli.  

The latter implication should not be dismissed.  The timing of Russia’s aggressive military force posture, which was rehearsed in spring 2021, is also designed to exploit the Berlin government’s closure of last six relatively modern nuclear power plants and the operational readiness of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, as well as the French presidential elections and the French presidency of the EU.  It is Germany’s (and much of Europe’s) growing dependence on Russian energy that is perhaps the single most important external factor shaping Moscow’s actions.  However, given Berlin’s centrality to Russia’s European strategy it is also reasonable to assume Moscow will not invade Ukraine before the forthcoming ‘reset’ meeting between President Putin and Chancellor Schölz.  

Putin intends to enter the Schölz meeting from which he regards as a position of overwhelming military strength. Putin also knows that NATO forces would be very unlikely to intervene in Ukraine beyond supplying Ukrainian defence forces with equipment or training.  NATO also lacks the political cohesion and the military capability in theatre to mount what would need to be the biggest military rescue operation in Europe since 1945. 

Politico-strategic consequences

The merest glance of a map demonstrates that the politico-strategic consequences of a successful Russian invasion would not just be profound for Ukraine, but for wider European security.  If Ukraine were reduced to a Russian puppet state Moscow would have created a strategic salient right into the heart of free Europe.  A successful Russian invasion and occupation of a very significant part of Ukraine would also be a big step towards the creation of a de facto buffer between Russia and NATO and the effective ‘Finlandisation’ of EU and NATO states from the Black Sea to an increasingly militarised Arctic. 

The security of the three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be profoundly weakened, not least because it would appear both the EU and NATO are incapable of influencing fundamental security challenges in Europe.  Russia’s ability to exert complex strategic coercion grey zone warfare would also be markedly strengthened and Russia’s use of hybrid warfare against allies on NATO’s eastern flank would doubtless intensify. 5D warfare against the Baltic States combining deception, disruption, disinformation, destabilisation and coercion through implied or actual Russian military action could become sufficiently acute that it in effect forces the three Baltic States into Russia’s sphere of influence, irrespective of their formal affiliations and memberships.

Whilst the US may respond by deploying two or three more Brigade Combat Teams to Europe the Biden administration is unlikely to do more.  This would be partly due to the worsening over-stretch of US armed forces caused by the seemingly inexorable rise of blue water China in the Indo-Pacific but Russian aggression in Ukraine would also test the willingness of the American people to again confront Russia in Europe at a time when Washington faces a host of domestic challenges. If the Americans fail to meet the challenge, a future Russian invasion of the Baltic States would suddenly become far more feasible, not least because it is clear Germany is not going to confront Russia beyond the demonstrably short-term, non-military, and symbolic. 

Policy options

Policy options must be considered over the short, medium and longer-term. This week, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace, established the principles upon which any response must be based.  Russia is conflating it aggression against Ukraine with demand for constraints on the future force posture of NATO. In fact, these are two separate policy-strategic Russian aims which must be seen as such. The Secretary of State also established the non-negotiable principles for a considered, proportionate and measured response to this grave crisis that Russia has chosen to create. First, NATO is a defensive Alliance. Second, all the free states of Europe joined the Alliance freely, which is a fundamental principle that must be defended. The people of Vilnius have the same rights to freedom, security and defence as, say, the people of Viereck in Germany, or Vancouver in Canada. Third, NATO is not encircling Russia as the Kremlin claims.  Russian militarisation of the Arctic, its threats to undersea communications, its growing interference in the Western Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, its abandonment of international treaties and norms, and its deployment of advanced, destabilising weapon systems demonstrate it is Moscow that is not only seeking to further dismember Ukraine but to destabilise free Europe, and decouple Europeans from their American and Canadian allies.

Short-term (pre-invasion and upon invasion)

Prior to an invasion (if possible) the deployment of more equipment and ‘trainers’ to Ukraine by NATO nations would be a clear deterrent.  NATO should at least formally launch a Ukrainian Deterrence Initiative to better equip Ukrainian forces over the medium-term and make the Ukrainian government and society more resilient in the face of Russia’s relentless information and cyber-attacks.

The only realistic diplomatic option in the wake of a Russian invasion would be to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, but in return accept Ukrainian neutrality as a reality, perhaps as part of a Franco-German brokered Minsk 3 Accord (Minsk 2 is dead).  The political result would be a Ukraine that would look much like Austria during the Cold War and reflect a pragmatic approach much like the US withdrawal of Thor missiles from Turkey six months after the November 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Even with that pragmatic approach there would also need to be an array of tough sanctions applied against Russia immediately, including an end to Nordstream 2 with Germany compensated by imports of US gas. Russia will have war-gamed such sanctions and will be betting that individual countries will dilute them, not least France, Italy and Germany.  

If Russia invades Ukraine the balance of military power in Europe will be changed.  NATO must respond immediately to demonstrate to Moscow that such actions will always trigger a defensive reaction. One option would be to deploy HQ, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (HQARRC) from England to near Warsaw. Such a deployment would send a clear signal that NATO will defend itself and reinforce the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Tailored Forward Presence in Bulgaria and Romania.

Medium-term (2025)

Over the medium-term (2025) NATO would need to complete and then reinforce the NATO Readiness Initiative allied to enhanced military mobility so that the bulk of Allied forces can move far more quickly to where they are needed. NATO should also move to expand the concept of deterrence across the spectrum of hybrid, cyber, conventional and nuclear threat and help the nations reinforce their resilience against 5D warfare across the bandwidth of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar – deception, disruption, disinformation, destabilisation and coercion through implied or actual Russian military action.

Longer-term (2030)

Over the longer-term a new European energy mix is needed that eases dependence on Russian energy.  However, it is hard power that the Putin regime most respects. Therefore, by 2030 at the latest, an Allied Command Operations Mobile Heavy Force (AMHF) should be deployed.  This would be a mainly European force with European enablers that would act as future core of NATO deterrence in Europe.

The AMHF would consolidate all Allied Rapid Response Forces into a single pool of forces and act as a high-end, first responder in all and any emergency.  The AMHF would be sufficiently capable to meet the array of future war threats Europeans will face as emerging and disruptive technologies enter Europe’s contested space. The AMHF would also be sufficiently capable to operate from seabed to space and across the multiple domains of the future battlespace air, sea, land, cyber, space, information, and knowledge armed with the emerging intelligent technologies that will shape the character of future war.

Comment

For all and any of the above to be realised European political leaders would need to end what for the past thirty years has passed for lamentable and utterly incompetent security and defence policies. The very policies that have brought Europe to the point where in 2022 Russia is considering undertaking a full-scale invasion of a European country. No more self-deceit.

Julian Lindley-French

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

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