The NATO Parliamentary Assembly meets next week in Washington to discuss the alliance’s redraft of its 2010 Strategic Concept, and the agenda is loaded with relatively new missions. Protecting against cyber attacks, hybrid warfare, the Chinese challenge, terrorism, and global warming indeed all need to be part of NATO’s expanding mission. But traditional collective defense remains the top priority, and that needs to be reflected in the new Strategic Concept, which will be drafted next year.
The need to prioritize that core task has been highlighted by Russian President Putin’s recent provocations all along NATO’s eastern border, including a massive military buildup near Ukraine, a vigorous Zapad 2021 exercise, engineering Belarus’ manufactured refugee crisis along the Polish border, nuclear bomber flights near NATO’s borders, and assertive naval behavior in the Black Sea. The risk of conflict by miscalculation or by escalation of an incident is greater today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. NATO’s deterrent posture needs to be strengthened in both the Baltic and Black Sea area to reduce this risk.
Four building blocks for enhanced deterrence are in place, and the new Strategic Concept needs to stimulate vigorous implementation of the next steps in each case. But that will take a concerted effort in a risk averse Europe unwilling to spend what is necessary on defense.
The first building block is forward-deployed NATO and American forces. Since the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO has deployed 1,000-person Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle groups in the three Baltic states and in Poland. In addition, the United States itself deploys a brigade-sized force in Poland and battalion-sized forces in Lithuania and Romania, mostly on a rotational basis. These forces could be overrun quickly by a determined Russian onslaught given its time and distance advantages, but as was the case in the city of Berlin during the Cold War, eFP does provide a useful tripwire.
There is not enough political will in Europe to forward-deploy the many brigades that would be needed to deny Russia the ability to occupy some or all of the Baltic states in a quick strike. But more can be done to complicate a Russian invasion and buy time to engage NATO reinforcements and hence solidify deterrence. For example, NATO could deploy some regional air defenses, long range artillery, anti-tank equipment, armed drones, and additional special forces to the Baltic states to slow down an onslaught. The United States could also make its periodic deployments “persistent” and promote a stronger naval posture in the Black Sea.
The second building block is having adequate ready forces in place to quickly support the thin line of NATO forward-deployed troops. After the annexation of Crimea, NATO reconstituted its NATO Response Force (NRF) and added to it a 5,000-person joint spearhead VJTF. Then in 2018, NATO agreed to a 4x30 readiness initiative that would have 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 major naval combatants ready to employ in 30 days. Those ready forces have been identified by the nations.
The task now is to make those ready forces a more effective deterrent. Waiting for a crisis to trigger a force generation conference is a waste of time. Those ready forces need to be organized and given a command structure. One suggestion is to build on the NRF and create a NATO Allied Command Operations Mobile Heavy Force (AMHF). The AHMF would be a European-led force (possibly commanded by the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps) that would consolidate all allied rapid-response forces into one single pool. It would be a high-end, first responder NATO Future Force able to act from seabed to space and across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. It would be sufficiently robust and responsive, and held at a sufficient level of readiness to meet all threats to the territory of the Euro-Atlantic Area in the first instance, while also able to support those front-line nations facing transnational threats such as terrorism. Over time the AMHF could also act as a vehicle for the introduction of artificial intelligence, super/quantum computing, big data, machine-learning, drone swarming, and hypersonic weapon systems to enable an allied capability that can progressively engage in hyper-fast warfare.
The third pillar of NATO deterrence is based on the existing Military Mobility Initiative designed to reduce red tape for transiting troops across national borders and to smooth logistic hurdles. The EU will fund the initiative at a fairly robust €1.7 billion level, and SACEUR Gen. Tod Wolters recently emphasized improvements that are underway. But the bureaucratic and physical hurdles remain enormous and roadblocks make the deterrent effect of ready forces less potent. One additional way to improve this element of the package is to significantly increase the prepositioning of equipment to secure forward locations. If equipment is already in place, getting troops to that equipment will be less onerous.
The final element in this deterrent structure is a credible nuclear posture. American, British, and French strategic nuclear weapons all underwrite NATO nuclear deterrence but Russia’s dominance in tactical nuclear weapons and its aggressive “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine create the risk that Moscow might be the first to use a nuclear device to freeze a conventional conflict that they are losing. That doctrine could mistakenly lead them to believe an “occupy and escalate” policy could work. NATO’s handful of nuclear gravity bombs delivered by allied dual capable aircraft (DCA) is the best answer NATO now has to deter such a misconception. But allied support for this DCA approach seems to be waning and NATO has no nuclear doctrine to counter Moscow’s “escalate to de-escalate” theology. So NATO needs to double down on its DCA commitment and design a new nuclear doctrine that assures “in-kind retaliation” should Moscow use a nuclear strike first.
Strengthening these four elements of NATO deterrence is a needed response to Russian aggression. But Moscow may wrongly see it as further escalation of an ongoing arms race. So NATO and Washington both need to maintain a closer dialogue with Moscow and respond accordingly if Moscow changes direction.
Hans Binnendijk is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and former NSC Senior Director for Defense Policy. Julian Lindley-French is Chairman of The Alphen Group.