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NATO in need of further adaptation

The US remains committed to Europe, and NATO has adapted to the Russian challenge. However, further measures are needed to strengthen deterrence, defence and allied cohesion. These are some of the IFS takeaways from a partner event in Washington, DC.

On 13 November, CSIS in Washington, DC, hosted a roundtable on «NATO deterrence and reinforcement strategies for Northern Europe», organised within the IFS-led research programme Security and Defence in Northern Europe (SNE).

From the left: Thomas W. Goffus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO, U.S. Department of Defense, Professor Kjell Inge Bjerga, Director, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS), Dr. Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

The roundtable (Chatham House Rule) attracted a distinguished group of speakers and participants including high-level government officials, embassy attaches, scholars and think tankers. Director of IFS, Kjell Inge Bjerga, and Svein Efjestad, Director of Security Policy in the Norwegian MoD, were among the speakers. The panels addressed developments in Northern European security in the context of NATO–Russia and transatlantic relations. They discussed the status of, and further requirements for, NATO adaptation as the Alliance approaches its next summit in July 2018 in Brussels.   

The following are some reflections and takeaways from the perspective of IFS' participants to the event. A CSIS summary report will be published later.

Security in Northern Europe

There are few if any signs that strained NATO–Russia relations and the difficult security situation in Northern Europe are about to improve. Russia has significantly strengthened the quality and readiness of its forces. It holds some advantages as regards the regional balance of power such as ability for rapid reinforcements, and it has developed capabilities that threatens the defence of NATO territory. Economic stagnation may halt its ambitions. However, its unpredictability and willingness to use force pose additional reasons for concern, as do a lack of transparency in planning and employment of force as last demonstrated by the Zapad exercise. Small countries near or bordering Russia see the country as their main strategic challenge. The security challenges in the High North and in the wider Baltic region are partly different, but also closely connected. Furthermore, Russia's bastion defence in the High North and its priority to establishing anti-access capabilities constitute a serious strategic challenge to transatlantic security and defence as such as it threatens the very link between North America and Europe.

Russia has moved from being a strategic partner to becoming a strategic competitor to the US and NATO. Whilst a proper balance between deterrence and dialogue should be a long-term goal, the US and its European allies will most likely emphasise deterrence and «peace through strength» in the years to come. Current relations in the High North have nonetheless demonstrated that a dual-track policy towards Russia, combining deterrence and defence on the one hand and cooperation and dialogue on the other, is feasible under some conditions. Norway and Russia have been able to uphold a good working relationship in areas such as coast guard cooperation, border activities, and search and rescue.

NATO's adaptation to the Russian challenge

Russia's annexation of Crimea and initiation of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in Spring 2014, mark a watershed in terms of reviving NATO's focus on deterrence and the collective defence task. The Alliance's ability to adapt to the Russian challenge through measures in the framework of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) adopted at the 2014 Wales Summit, and through additional measures intended to further strengthen NATO's deterrence and defence posture at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, could be deemed a political success story.

There have been clear changes and improvements in NATO's military posture since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. The 2014 Wales Summit established a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) as part of an enhanced NATO Response Force, and small force integration units (NFIUs) in Eastern and Central Europe. The 2016 Warsaw Summit established an enhanced forward presence (eFP) consisting of four multinational battalion-size battlegroups across the Baltic states and Poland.

NATO has made important steps towards establishing a presumably effective «deterrence by tripwire» in Eastern Europe through the eFP and deployment of an additional US armoured brigade. However, there are a range of necessary improvements to make and hurdles to overcome, concerning both the enhanced presence as such and the readiness and mobility of reinforcements. These relate to 

  • decision-making procedures 
  • command and control 
  • rules of engagement 
  • fire power and protection 
  • logistics and legal impediments 

Furthermore, the multinational character of the eFP battle groups demonstrates allied solidarity, but complicates interoperability and hence operational effectiveness. There is also an ongoing debate on whether the US presence should be persistent or permanent.   

One of the panels included (from the right): Professor Kjell Inge Bjerga, IFS, Heather Conley, CSIS, Thomas Goffus, U.S. Department of Defense.

Command structure reform and maritime strategy update

NATO is in the process of addressing a number of critical issues, notably changes in the command structure and in the maritime strategy. Norway has been at the forefront in underscoring the need for improvements in these areas.

NATO's current command structure is not aligned to the new strategic reality. The member states' defence ministers have agreed to a baseline for change, but difficult questions remain to be clarified in the review process. Questions such as the size and shape of a third joint command to help protect sea lines of communication between North America and Europe, how to secure proper regional focus, competence and situational awareness, and how to connect NATO and national structures.

NATO's maritime strategy is also being addressed, in particular reflecting the view that the Alliance's posture and activities in the North Atlantic should be strengthened.

Comprehensive policies and new strategic concept?

There is a need for more comprehensive NATO policies in a number of areas, such as better coordinated training and exercise programmes. Furthermore, the Alliance has put much effort into developing regional graduated response plans, whilst more work remains on seeing these as part of a whole, including as elements in a theatre-wide approach. Also, a whole-spectrum approach to deterrence and defence was called for during the dicussions, one that is accompanied by clear strategic messaging including on nuclear forces.

The idea of revising NATO's strategic concept is gaining ground and could be instrumental in bridging internal differences and strengthen unity within the Alliance. NATO's many member states have variegated and partly conflicting interests as regards issues such as approach to Russia, whether to focus on threats stemming from the east or the south, and whether to prioritise operations «in-area» or «out-of area». There are also transatlantic tensions regarding burden-sharing, and uncertainty with regards to the effects of Brexit and European defence initiatives. It is probably possible and advantageous to build a new consensus on threats and approaches, and this would also contribute to flesh out and secure ownership on the part of the current US administration to a NATO policy. However, setting out to revise the strategic concept also carries risks and could potentially go astray.

US commitment and transatlantic burden-sharing

American defence involvement in Europe must be seen in a global context, in which the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly important to US security. Coupled with President Trump's talent for causing stir and hardline rhetoric on burden-sharing, many has questioned US commitment to NATO and its collective defence clause.

The panel discussions left the clear impression that key actors in Washington perceive that the US has important strategic interests in Europe, understands the value of its European allies and is committed to their defence. US funding for the European Deterrence Initative is expected to increase in 2018. However, European countries are expected to take more responsibility for their own security, and the smallest of allies are no exception.

The Norwegian government has for its part committed to increase defence spending in the years to come through the long-term defence plan adopted last year, although it still has a way to go in terms of reaching the 2 % goal of the Wales defence investment pledge. Norway's acquisition of 52 F-35 fighter aircraft and 5 P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft demonstrates both its crucial contribution in monitoring activities in the north as well as a strong bilateral relationship with the US. Another manifestation of the strong bilateral relationship is the rotational stationing of 330 US Marines on Norwegian soil. Norway also shoulder burdens through military engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and as part of NATO's eFP in Lithuania, and will host NATO's high visibility exercise Trident Juncture next year.

One point of view set out during the discussions was that through cooperation in regional groupings, small states can join forces to be better able to take care of their own security. Recent developments in Nordic defence cooperation served as an illustration. However, ties to larger Western states and the US in particular remains the crucial priority, including for non-members Sweden and Finland.  

Written by Ida M. Oma

Published 22 November 2017 14:07.. Last updated 13 April 2018 08:40.