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NATO digs in for the long haul

September 16th, 2015

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

Military training facilities in Lithuania have, this summer, seen the first intake of personnel for compulsory military service since conscription was reintroduced earlier this year. So far, a draft forcing individuals into military service in the country has not actually been necessary: sufficient volunteers – motivated by both patriotism and the fact that those who go willingly get a say in where they are posted – have to date come forward to fill 2,600 of this year’s 3,000 places, and more are expected. But the decision by the Lithuanian government to reinstate a practice which was only abolished in 2008 is a clear manifestation of the impact Russia’s actions in Ukraine are having within NATO’s members. As the war in the Donbass grinds on, and Russia shows little sign of abandoning the parallel universe it has created with regards to the causes and solutions to the conflict, preparations for what is looking increasingly likely to be a period of increased tension lasting years or decades is now well under way across the Western alliance and beyond.

At the macro level, the decision by NATO one year ago, during its Wales Summit, to recalibrate its rapid deployment force to deal with the new Russian threat has been the most public manifestation of change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, given the unwieldly nature of any military alliance of democratic states, it took until February this year for full details to emerge. Key to plans will be the introduction of a 5,000 strong brigade-sized Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) – the lead elements of which would be ready to move within two to three days – into the already existent NATO Reaction Force (NRF). Collectively, the NRF is to more than double in size from 13,000 to 30,000 troops, allowing for the VJTF to enjoy the follow-on support of two further brigades in the event of a major crisis. If all goes according to plan, the VJTF should be ready by 2016, with the enlarged NRF as a whole available from 2018.  Supporting this effort, this month has seen the establishment of six NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria to help NATO plan peacetime exercises and assist in the linking up of NATO reinforcements with local forces in wartime.

As has been highlighted by many, such forces in themselves are inadequate for the defence of the NATO periphery from a direct attack from Russia. It is improbable that even the elements of the VJTF that were primed to deploy within days would be able to make any serious impact on an enemy’s armoured and airborne push into the Baltic States: such action would likely see Moscow’s military claim rapid victory. Instead, the VJTF is set up to provide NATO with options to respond to the (still contentiously defined) type of ‘hybrid warfare’ seen in Ukraine. In a scenario in Estonia, for example, this could see an ‘uprising’ by ethnic Russians – or, more accurately, a Moscow-sponsored rent-a-mob aided by both Russian Special Forces and elements of a population conditioned by years of Moscow-backed propaganda – seize key points in the east of the country. In Ukraine, the dilapidated state of the country’s armed forces prevented an adequate response to similar events before the situation spiralled out of control. In Estonia, a simple lack of force mass would be the main challenge. In such a scenario, the VJTF would be tasked with both assisting local military units in re-establishing order and acting as a deterrent to direct Russian intervention. Even a fully deployed VJTF would be able to do little on its own to prevent a determined incursion by Moscow. However, the introduction of regular Russian troops to stem the defeat of local allied actors – as happened in Ukraine in the summer of 2014 when Kiev’s army looked likely to defeat the rebels in the east – would carry far more dire consequences were the major NATO powers already engaged in the conflict.

Of course, paper plans written by NATO require investment at the member state level to make real. It was at this point that many expected the response to Russia to fall down: talk is cheap, but tanks come with a significant cost. However, perhaps against the expectations of a Kremlin that holds similar views of the ‘decadent democracies’ to regimes past, key alliance countries have actually been willing to commit additional resources to the task at hand. Inevitably, the most radical change has been in the states closest to Russia. Whilst Estonia already meets the NATO spending target of allocating two per cent of its GDP on defence (and unlike Lithuania, has never abolished conscription), it is further increasing investment and has acted to boost its capabilities by acquiring CV90 infantry fighting vehicles and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Latvia is to increase its defence spending to two per cent of GDP (vs. 0.91 per cent in 2014) by 2018, and Lithuania to 1.5 per cent of GDP (vs. 0.89 per cent in 2014). Equipment wise, Latvia is acquiring a selection of ex-British Army armoured vehicles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and a large stock of anti-tank rockets from Norway. Lithuania is in the midst of buying new infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and GROM surface-to-air missiles. Whilst many of these weapons programmes were already, to some extent, in progress prior to the Ukraine crisis, there can be little doubt that what in several cases were ‘paper projects’ have only been given true life as a result of recent tensions.

In isolation, none of the above is sufficient to do much more than deny a ‘cheap win’ for Russia in the Baltic region in the event of a direct assault: a Kremlin victory would still be inevitable, but at a higher cost. For genuine deterrence both there and in the wider Eastern European theatre, the responsibility lies with the major NATO powers. Acting as the backstop to the Baltic States and facing the Russian-owned Kaliningrad Oblast and Russian-allied Belarus in its own right, Poland has also recognised the importance of increased investment with a pledge to spend the NATO target of two per cent of GDP on defence from 2016 onwards. Materially, this can be seen to be manifest in the recent decision to purchase Patriot surface-to-air missiles and new transport helicopters, as well as JASSM air-launched cruise missiles. There is even talk of acquiring submarines with a cruise missile capability. As in the Baltic States, these programmes were already at least theoretically in progress pre-Ukraine, but have been given added impetus by events. A major case in point is Warsaw’s acceleration of its plan to purchase a new generation of attack helicopters: this programme has been expedited at the expense of the purchase of additional transport helicopters, as the threat of Russian armour has taken priority.

Perhaps the most surprising participant in the rearmament surge has been Germany. Still scarred by the Second World War, its public is sceptical of military action to the point that a recent poll indicated that the majority of German citizens were even against providing assistance to a NATO ally if it were attacked by Russia. Nevertheless, the government has opted to spend an additional $8.9bn on defence over the next four years. Whilst the extra money will still not take Germany anywhere near the two per cent NATO target (it currently spends 1.2 per cent of its GDP on defence), this and other planned spending increases will help to remedy the problems of a force that has repeatedly demonstrated woeful levels of combat readiness.  However, although most of the additional funding will go towards improving the preparation level of existing forces as opposed to new equipment, one eye-catching initiative that has caught the attention of many is the plan to bring over one hundred additional tanks into service with the German Army. For a force that has spent the last quarter century in a peacekeeping and counterinsurgency role, the procurement of equipment that is often seen as synonymous with state-on-state warfare is a clear signal of intent.

Other major NATO nations have also increased defence spending levels. France has replaced planned cuts with a pledge of a real-term spending increase that will see expenditure sustained at 1.8 per cent of GDP. Admittedly, much of this is the result of new domestic commitments in the aftermath of the recent Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack and equipment for counterinsurgency operations in Africa, but certain NATO-focused capabilities – notably cyber-warfare – will also be enhanced. Also of importance, has been the cancellation of the delivery of two helicopter carriers to Russia. However, undoubtedly the most headline-grabbing NATO defence spending pledge this year has been from the UK, with its government’s announcement of the plan to continue to allocate two per cent of national income to the sector. The commitment has been plagued with (entirely justifiable) allegations of creative accountancy, but it still amounts to an extra $3.2bn per year being spent on defence by 2020. Nevertheless, details of exactly what this will mean in practical terms will have to wait until the publication of Britain’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, which is due in late 2015.

However, despite its global commitments and geographical distance from Europe, it is the US that remains the primary NATO actor. It is, therefore, of little surprise that many of the alliance’s most vulnerable members look across the Atlantic to find their ultimate security guarantee. When the Baltic States and Poland call for the permanent stationing of NATO forces in their countries, it is the US they wish to see step up to the plate. But in an ironic reversal of recent history, whilst many European NATO members have started to increase their defence spending, the US is currently in the midst of a major defence spending crunch – born of dysfunctional Washington politics. Nevertheless, despite its constrained circumstances and a timid current political leadership, the US is playing its part. Since the eruption of the Ukraine conflict, the US has undertaken a series of exercises and operational deployments under the umbrella of Operation Atlantic Resolve. This has included contributions from the US Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army as part of the European Reassurance Initiative, which also incorporates training for Ukrainian forces and has been funded to the tune of $985m for the fiscal year 2015 alone, with a further $800m requested for 2016.

Much of the US money is going not towards funding deployments – an approach which would indicate that this is a short-term initiative – but on the building of permanent infrastructure in the Baltic States and Central and Eastern Europe. Most notable, is the plan to station a brigade’s worth of equipment split between sites in six countries for use by visiting US forces as part of a ‘European Activity Set’. Whilst this equipment is primarily to be used for training, the US Army is pushing for the programme to be followed up by the stationing of an additional brigade of equipment, known as Army Prepositioned Stocks, in Western Europe for use in a crisis. In wartime, it is planned that the US-based 4th Infantry Division would be the lead formation assigned to Europe, with its initial units deploying by air to meet up with the stored equipment.

As part of efforts to mould these initiatives into a tangible fighting force, this autumn will witness the largest NATO exercise in over a decade. Trident Juncture 2015 will see 36,000 troops from NATO member states and other nations engage in a series of complex exercises encompassing elements ranging from cyber warfare to conventional combat in and around Spain, Portugal and Italy. Whilst the exercise has been in the planning since 2012 and has geography with a nod towards the threat to Southern Europe, the incorporation of ‘hybrid warfare’ elements is not lost on those participating. Perhaps more tellingly, NATO intends that the sequel exercise in 2018 will take place in and around Norway, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.  This year’s Trident Juncture will immediately follow Swift Response 2015, the largest airborne exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Contrary to the expectations of many, NATO appears to have responded to recent Russian provocations in a balanced fashion. Regardless of how the dollar store propaganda of Kremlin-funded English language outlets seek to (ineffectively) portray it, none of the deployments or exercises NATO has embarked upon in the last eighteen months can be seen as a plausible threat to Russia. Indeed, it was announced last month that the enhanced Baltic Air Policing mission – the only permanent non-local combat force NATO actually has in Eastern Europe – is to be halved in strength after recognition that the enlargement it underwent, following the annexation of Crimea, was beyond what was required. But the other side of this equation has seen member states respond to the crisis with a level of resolve that many in Moscow probably thought impossible given the EU’s ongoing economic struggles, Eastern Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and the vast amount of corrupt Russian money tied up in the West – particularly the UK. Worse still for the Kremlin, countries that were in large part bystanders in the Cold War between the West and the Soviets – most notably Sweden and Finland – are taking steps to increase their own defence expenditure, improve force readiness and enhance collaboration with NATO.

None of this is to pretend the West’s response to tensions with Russia has been perfect or covers every contingency. But there is an argument to say that far from being unable to take any meaningful action due to the widely divergent priorities of its member states, it is intra-alliance relationships that have helped facilitate difficult decisions being taken. It is hard to imagine that France would have cancelled the delivery of the Mistral-class landing ships to Russia had it not been for pressure from its international partners; US influence was instrumental in the UK’s decision to increase its defence spending; and whilst the US has resisted pressure by the Eastern European nations to permanently deploy troops on their soil, the forward basing of equipment is a programme that an often paralytically cautious White House would have been unlikely to have proposed on its own initiative. Putin’s much vaunted ability to act decisively is only an asset so long as he takes the correct decisions. Paradoxically, the diverse nature of NATO may be one of its greatest strengths in meeting the renewed Russian challenge.

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Senior Fellow who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Political Science and an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent The Two Per Cent Solution: an Alternative Strategic Defence and Security Review report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest.