The political-military situation in which NATO now functions is particularly complicated. Old threats have acquired new dimensions, and those once regarded as merely theoretical have become quite real. Moreover, such phenomena as globalisation and the development of information systems and military technology have brought new challenges in their wake.
Two developments in particular have fundamentally changed NATO’s security environment. First is the emergence in the Middle East of the Islamic State: a para-state structure with supra-regional aspirations in furtherance of which it resorts to international terrorism. Second, and possibly more relevant, is the entrance on the scene of Russia as a state which entertains imperial aspirations and does not hesitate, as it pointedly demonstrated in Georgia and in Ukraine, to use (or threaten) force to expand its territory or zone of influence. In addition, the European Union attempts to address new problems, namely its weakening economic condition, the immigration crisis, and Brexit. Compounding the abovementioned difficulties is uncertainty about the outcome of approaching elections in several key European states, and about the directions of U.S. policy following the election of Donald Trump as president.
As a result of Russia’s expansive and aggressive conduct on the international scene, NATO’s fundamental objective, solidary defence against aggression, is no longer a secondary purpose belonging in the past. Senator Richard Lugar’s phrase “NATO – out of area, or out of business”1 no longer applies. Today it is more appropriate to contend: “NATO – in the area, or out of business”.
The response to this new situation came at the Newport and Warsaw NATO summits. A number of important decisions were taken, some detailed and some directional, to be translated into concrete actions. Thus, a process of meaningful changes within the Alliance, to be discussed and adopted for implementation by all members, was triggered.
What needs to be done, then, to strengthen the Alliance and the security of its members? It is worth noting, first of all, that the decisions taken at the recent NATO summits show that the Alliance is not content merely to reassure members that the security guarantees under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty are a thing to be relied on. Indeed, the Alliance needs to be credible not only to its members, but to a potential aggressor as well. This means creating universal belief that the Allies will take joint and solidary action in the defence of any state that is attacked. Yet credibility also requires appropriate resilience to the adversary’s actions, and the means to ensure that a response to aggression will be both effective and very costly to the aggressor. In other words, it takes deterrence as well as reassurance.
That said, in the present political situation the most important thing is to restore confidence that the security guarantees and Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be observed in full. This is due, first of all, to an ambiguity which has arisen from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign statements, notably from his announcement that the United States’ response to aggression against a NATO member would depend on whether that member had met its commitments by allocating no less than 2% of its GNP to defence. Equally disconcerting are poll findings which show that many NATO publics are highly averse to the engagement of their national armed forces in repelling aggression against another allied country.
Accordingly, reassurance of security is immensely important now that one of the aims of Russia’s policy is to engender in the NATO border countries a sense of danger so as to render them more susceptible to pressure from their powerful neighbour. In other words, given NATO’s prevailing consensus principle, Russia aims to make the intimidated countries a factor weakening, or indeed, paralysing, possible joint actions by the Alliance.
Yet NATO’s credibility must also be based on appropriate military capabilities, and in this respect the situation is by no means satisfactory. The momentous political changes which occurred in the North Atlantic area in the 1990s brought about a thorough re-orientation of the Alliance’s priorities. The defence of members’ territories took a back seat to out of area operations, the experience of the which showed the need to focus on the development of expeditionary capabilities, suitable military equipment, and command structures. Furthermore, the feeling that there was no longer a grave direct threat characteristic of Cold War times offered a good pretext for radical cuts in defence spending. Not only were the numbers of troops reduced markedly, but units and equipment necessary to maintain credible capability for conducting missions in defence of the Alliance’s territory were scrapped.
Such being the case, another major task for NATO is to ensure that all Allies meet the commitment, made at the Newport summit, to increase their defence spending to at least 2% of GDP. It should be borne in mind that this is not going to be easy, since for many states it will involve at least doubling their defence budgets. Nevertheless, it is important that the agreed spending levels be met as soon as possible, and that an appropriate share of these resources be allocated to modernising weapons and procuring new equipment better suited to the needs of the defence Alliance members’ territories.
Despite Russia’s huge and growing outlays on the development and modernisation of its armed forces, NATO still has a marked lead in this field (predominately owing to the vast military potential of the U.S.). Accordingly, the problem lies not in the number of troops or the quantity and quality of combat equipment, but in the deployment of the same and in equitable cost-sharing by the Allies.
The relative weakness of the Baltic States’ armed forces (understandable, given these countries’ economic potentials and populations) stands in sharp contrast with the strength of well-equipped and well-trained Russian units deployed at their borders. The same applies to Poland, though to a lesser degree.
Such being the case, a fundamental question that needs answering is this: What kinds of threat NATO might face on its Eastern Flank? Obviously, this question is not about assessing the probability of a black scenario under which Russia starts a full-scale conflict or attempts to undermine the territorial integrity of a NATO member. However, a security policy should be developed on the basis of the most dangerous scenarios (unlikely, but not improbable), rather than of most probable ones (such as the absence of conflict). Discounting the former could tempt a potential aggressor, whereupon they would be much more likely to materialise.
It follows that what should be taken into account is a scenario of aggression against one or more Alliance members. The pretext could be, much like in the case of Crimea, the need to protect the Russophone population in the Baltic States against alleged harassment. This is a scenario of a conflict of limited scale and extent. The aggressor could decide to take this step because it would count on achieving its military aims relatively soon and at a low cost before the Alliance moves to act, if it wants to act at all. Hence it is of immense importance that aggression (even on a limited-scale) should meet with a response by the entire Alliance rather than just by the target state, and that the response should be immediate.
One possible form of limited attack could be an air strike, whether by aircraft or ballistic or cruise missiles. Hence the importance of building within NATO a cohesive air defence system spanning the national systems. It is also of key importance that international treaties, such as the Treaty on the Elimination of Immediate-range and Shorter-range Missiles (the INF Treaty), be kept in force and effect.
In connection with a possible attack, it is immensely important that the decisions taken in Warsaw, on the deployment of NATO units on the Eastern Flank, be implemented in a timely manner and that the presence of these forces be permanent. The strategic function of these units must be similar to that of U.S. and British military units stationed in West Berlin during the Cold War era. A response to potential aggression must not be limited to stopping the same: NATO must be capable of restoring the initial situation, and of taking retaliatory steps which will make the aggression costly.
It goes without saying that the multinational NATO units deployed on the strength of the Warsaw summit decisions, even combined with local forces, will not suffice to stop potential aggression. Hence NATO military planners must develop plans for the deployment of additional units to the region of potential conflict and assess resources required for such an operation. The task of the political authorities of the Alliance and its members would be to maintain such resources, or procure the same under national military forces development plans.
Should the limited aggression scenario materialise, the speed with which the Alliance takes appropriate decisions will be of key importance. While in the case of large-scale aggression it is reasonable to assume that the decision will be taken promptly, in the case of a local conflict (of an unclear nature and scale) various doubts could arise. Putting the decision off could be fatal both politically and militarily. For this reason, it is of immense importance that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) has the authority to put high readiness units (NRF) on alert, or even have them moved to a region close to the area of hostilities. Yet the decision on the combat use of these forces would have to be taken by the appropriate political body of the Alliance.
The deployment of military units should be tested through military exercises. Accordingly, the practice of holding exercises such as REFORGER (the deployment of U.S. troops to Germany) or similar exercises conducted by U.S. and Egyptian forces should be resumed. The focus should be on transferring units from European NATO countries and on rebuilding capability for the rapid deployment of troops from the U.S. to Europe. It should be noted in this context that huge-scale exercises of this type are conducted all the time in Russia. Yet, for the redeployment of units (including during exercises) to proceed efficiently, the NATO states need to simplify and harmonise their local regulations on the movement of military personnel and equipment and on the crossing of national borders (a “Military Schengen”).
Then, the NATO command bodies are in need of a thorough review. Firstly, having the Allied Land Forces Command located in Turkey does not seem a suitable arrangement. Secondly, it would be appropriate for the command of the Szczecin-based Multinational North-East Corps, which, under a decision taken at the Wales NATO summit was promoted to a high-readiness unit, to have seconded to it on a permanent basis NATO units capable of prompt mobilisation (this would amount to reverting to a situation of several years ago).
Another major problem NATO must address is a thorough review of the Alliance’s nuclear policy. The need for this results from Russia’s clearly articulated plans for the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has developed a concept of using tactical nuclear weapons for “conflict de-escalation”. The concept assumes that, following the prompt (owing to the element of surprise) attainment of military goals by the threat of use of nuclear weapons (or, indeed, by local use combined with the threat of further escalation), the adversary, in this case NATO, would be forced to agree to freeze the conflict and refrain from actions that could result in the defeat of the Russian forces. The existing NATO doctrine does not provide for a precise response to such a scenario. The use by NATO of tactical nuclear weapons could prove rather ineffective since, following the drastic reductions of past years, the U.S. arsenals hold only nuclear air bombs, which could be difficult to use given the likelihood of highly effective Russian air defence. As for the use of strategic weapons, this could give rise to apprehensions of a risky escalation of the conflict.
NATO also faces a new challenge in connection with the Russian “hybrid war” doctrine. The doctrine assumes that a contemporary conflict will be characterised by the blurring of differences between war and peace. It holds that the outcome of war need not be decided by clashes between large military formations, but by a combination of political activities (in which use is made of domestic opposition) and the employment of special forces, personnel operating under the cover of “private” firms or military organisations, disinformation and cyberattacks, and economic impact. The purpose of these activities is to utterly paralyse and disintegrate the target state and thereby to defeat it. A response to the threat of such activities must include the strengthening of the economy’s resilience, in particular of its critical infrastructure, and of the country’s cohesiveness, including its political and civic structures. These tasks should be performed by each state, while the Alliance should help create cyber and information combat capabilities and conduct exercises to test the capability for adopting suitable counter-measures.
Obviously, the activities of the Islamic State are yet another threat to NATO. Some Allies fear terrorist attacks more than they fear Russia’s aggressive policies. The Alliance should, if only for this reason, be capable of conducting expeditionary operations. It is worth reminding the critics of the enhancement of territorial defence capabilities that, so far, the security guarantees were put into operation only once, following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York. The terrorist threats are not new, but the threats from Russia are.
1J. Medcalf, Going Global or Going Nowhere. NATO’s Role in Contemporary National Security, Peter Lang, 2008, p. 67.