Although barely discussed at the May mini-summit in Brussels, Russia remains a growing threat to NATO. To deal effectively with this threat and others, the alliance is designing a new air power strategy. To take full advantage of NATO's overwhelming potential to deliver precise combat power from the air, this new strategy should focus on three long-term tasks.
For its first task, NATO air forces must improve readiness and sustainability to maximize its deterrent posture.
After the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO forward deployed a battle group to each of the Baltic states and Poland to demonstrate the alliance's resolve and intent to meet its Article 5 defense obligations. Given the modest size of these NATO forces, they could be overwhelmed by a well-planned, determined short-notice Russian attack.
Some defense analysts fear Russia might be tempted to attack on the bet that the alliance could not achieve a timely consensus on the follow-on course of action. During a pause after the initial attack, Russia might seek to control the situation by threatening nuclear escalation or petitioning for a diplomatic solution, thus creating further political paralysis.
Several steps would go a long way to prevent or negate the dangerous "pause" that could put NATO and Russia at odds. European fighter aircraft need to be kept at high readiness, ready to "fight tonight." Munition stockpiles must be robust and combat operations sustainable with precision-guided munitions. Aircrews and ground crews need to be available, combat ready and well trained. NATO airfields must accommodate high-tempo combat operations that support sortie generation to high levels.
Unnecessary flight restrictions need to be removed for peacetime and combat operations. Cyber communications must be secure. Rules of engagement must be clear. Russia must understand the limits to sanctuaries should it initiate an attack. A revamped and clear strategic Indications and Warning system must be implemented to identify the early stages of an impending Russian aggression. European dual-capable aircraft must be modernized.
For its second task, NATO air power must assure air superiority in anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) environments created by potential adversaries. Russian A2/AD deployments in the Kola Peninsula by the Barents Sea, Kaliningrad by the Baltic Sea, Crimea by the Black Sea and Syria by the Eastern Mediterranean will challenge NATO operations in those areas. The complete air superiority enjoyed by NATO during combat operations against terrorists may not be easily achieved in the future. Air superiority is not optional. If the Russians perceive that they can deny NATO flight operations, deterrence will be severely degraded and could invite conflict.
To signal a strong intent to maintain air superiority in peacetime or in conflict, NATO should transition from air policing to a more robust and enduring air defense posture under the command and control (C2) of a fully manned, fully integrated and validated air operations center (AOC) under the leadership of standing joint force air component (JFAC) commander and staff. To protect its own assets, NATO's Integrated Air and Missile Defense system also needs to be strengthened.
For the third task, European air forces must develop full spectrum capability and capacity, including so-called enablers such as reconnaissance, refueling and strategic lift aircraft. This will provide European air forces the ability to execute independently if needed. Additionally, this holistic approach to organizing, training and equipping air forces will exponentially increase alliance combat capability and readiness.
European air forces have very capable fourth generation fighter aircraft, but procuring fifth generation aircraft will provide the independent capabilities necessary to neutralize A2/AD environments. These overall improvements will require Europe to set a long-term goal of a capacity to manage at least one major combat operation on its own.
NATO allies should meet their obligation to the Defense Investment Pledge (2 percent of GDP for defense) and use enough of the increased defense spending to invest strategically in NATO air capabilities. Maximizing NATO's framework nation concept (in which a lead nation is supported by a smaller nation) will reduce duplication, enhance coordination and insure that the increase in defense spending is invested wisely to enhance deterrence and increase collective defense capacity. An air power framework nation consortium should be considered.
The three tasks discussed here plus the means to implement them should be central to NATO's new air power strategy.
Gen. Frank Gorenc served as the commander of NATO's Allied Air Command; commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe; and commander of U.S. Air Forces Africa. Hans Binnendijk served as the U.S. National Security Council senior director for defense policy, as well as the director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies. Both participated in a recent NATO Joint Air Power Competence Centre study on air power strategy.