While military logistics within NATO have received less attention since the end of the Cold War, the issue is returning to the forefront given concerns over the increasing ability of peer or near-peer adversaries to engage in conventional warfare. Four aspects of military mobility merit continuous attention when aiming to achieve reliability of supply in support of defensive and deterrent action in the European theater.
Protecting one’s own supply lines and attacking those of any adversary are fundamental parts of military strategy. Both historic and recent conflicts provide ample examples of the crucial importance of the protection of strategic and operational supply lines. The German U-boat campaign during World War II aimed to disrupt merchant shipping and limit supplies from the United States to Europe, while more recently in Syria both the regime and the rebels have sought ways to cut the opponent’s supply lines and impose siege.
During the Cold War, European defense was supported by an elaborate, static logistics supply chain that was enabled by long supply lines from rear-area depots and military equipment manufacturers and by a system of forward-deployed units and depots. The end of the Cold War saw a pivot toward network-centric, out-of-area operations in complex and dynamic operational environments, requiring logistics to be able to provide flexible support in remote battlefields in insurgent threat environments.
After years of focusing on nonstate adversaries, NATO is refocusing on the potential threats from peer and near-peer powers. Allied concerns over such actors as Russia, North Korea, China and Iran indicate that in the case of a state-on-state conflict, a potential NATO adversary could be a peer or near-peer actor with sophisticated assets enabling them to interfere with the ability to ensure military mobility on all levels, from the strategic to the tactical level.
Despite the crucial importance of establishing and maintaining supply lines for the success of deterrence and the reinforcement of predeployed troops and main battle operations, logistics and movement management have been taking a back seat to the discussion on strategy and military posture. The importance of military mobility has returned only recently to the international high-level agenda, specifically NATO and the European Union. In 2015, NATO senior representatives, including the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, recognized the issue after the U.S. increased the number of exercises in Europe in response to the conflict in Ukraine.
Italian and Dutch ministers of foreign affairs also raised the importance of mobility. These developments led to initiatives aimed at improving mobility within NATO and the EU.
While NATO is looking to establish a Joint Support and Enabling Command in Germany to enable more efficient military mobility within Europe, a new north Atlantic planning and strategy command is expected to be set up to help ensure the safety of shipping lanes.
Decisions to improve mobility from two key organizations are being awaited: The EU is expected to tackle the issue of military mobility during a European Council meeting in late June, and NATO will convene a summit in July.
Some of the key issues in military mobility that may be considered include:
Sea and air mobility: Transport of military equipment by sea and air remains a complex endeavor in Europe in peacetime. Potential areas for development may include investment in organic military air- and sea-transport capabilities, port and unloading infrastructure, information exchange and management, and alignment of national regulations.
Ground mobility: Transport of military equipment, especially heavy equipment, by land remains hampered by numerous legal, administrative, infrastructure-related and transport capability issues. There is a need to reduce the time required to obtain national transit permits, improve related coordination processes, strengthen infrastructure (such as improving bridge and road weight-bearing capacity), and invest in military transport capabilities for heavy and oversized equipment.
Rear-area protection: NATO should consider ensuring that rear-area supply troops are adequately protected from a wide range of threats in peacetime and in conflict. These can range from operations against hybrid threats to high-intensity attacks. Investing in secure communication networks, counter-reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to augment security with tactical units could contribute to better protection.
Need for close NATO and EU cooperation: Mobility has been recognized by NATO and the EU as an issue for increased cooperation in December. This area may become one of the flagships of successful cooperation of the two organizations — the EU has started to work to develop an EU-led initiative on military mobility (such as a multinational initiative to improve military mobility under the Permanent Structured Cooperation defense and security collaboration framework) and also has identified the need to improve the resilience of transport infrastructure as a key element in countering hybrid threats.
Improved logistics, such as safe supply lines and the ability to ensure rapid mobility, is vital in an environment in which many NATO member states are refocusing on European deterrence and defense from conventional threats.