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Enhancing NATO’s readiness

Is the Atlantic Alliance politically and militarily able to respond rapidly to the major threats it is facing? The main topics of the upcoming NATO Summit in July 2018 were discussed at a partner event in London.

At the summits in Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016), the 29 member states initiated a major adaptation to a changed security situation, by agreeing for instance on a Readiness Action Plan, on a defence investment pledge, and on deploying an enhanced forward presence to the East.

This year's summit will not only be about implementation. Improving NATO's readiness requires new measures as regards reinforcements, military mobility and command and control.

Round table discussion in London

On 16 March 2018, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) organised a round table discussion within the IFS-led research programme Security and Defence in Northern Europe (SNE). Discussions focused on three topics that can be expected to take centre stage in Brussels: The command structure review, NATO decision making and allied cohesion.

 

 

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Seminar participants were from the four partner institutes – RUSI, the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and IFS – together with colleagues from other research institutions and representatives from NATO, the Norwegian, British, and US government. The following are some reflections from the perspective of IFS' participants to the event.

A command structure fit for purpose?

Having argued for a long time that the current command structure is not fit for purpose, Norway has gathered support for reform.  At the last defence ministerial meeting, allies agreed to establish

  • a new joint force command for the Atlantic, most likely headquartered in the US and intended to help protect sea lines of communication between North America and Europe, as well as
  • a new support command for logistics, reinforcement and military mobility, likely to be located in Germany.

In addition, NATO is planning two new land component commands.  

The details of the new command's responsibilities, size and location are yet to be finalised over the next weeks and months. Taking a closer look at the Atlantic command, seminar participants pointed at a set of more fundamental questions that will require further debate:

First, there is the question of how to integrate the new command elements with existing NATO commands and national headquarters. The interface between the new Atlantic Command and the Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) needs clarification.

Another question is whether the emerging structure will be sufficient to deal with the complexity of a threat scenario in which an adversary like Russia uses threshold warfare and grey zone activities to undermine the Alliance. Given NATO's commitment to a 360-degree view on security, the new commands will emphasise collective defence but also needs to maintain the capacity to conduct crisis management operations out-of-area.

Regionalisation of the command structure

The regionalisation of responsibilities, competencies and structures is another issue that needs attention. Norway is among those member states pledging to introduce regional responsibilities in the command structure. Joint force commands could be given regional responsibilities, for instance with Naples in charge of Europe South of the Alps, Brunssum for Europe North of the Alps, and the new command responsible for the Atlantic.

Moving in this direction could also see incorporation of strong national HQs in the Alliance framework and double hatting of their commanders. Local knowledge at national HQs could thus complement competencies at the joint commands.

However, such regionalisation has its pitfalls, as it could lead to fragmentation of responsibility. In any case, the command structure must be properly manned and equipped. The basis for this process should be operational requirements, but there will be economic and manpower constraints.

The increasing importance of space and cyberspace adds a further complication to the command structure issue, as there is currently no clear policy on where the responsibility for these domains rest.

More effective decision-making

In addition to well-functioning command structures and investment in military capabilities and infrastructure, readiness requires efficient political decision-making processes. One possibility is to expand SACEUR's authority. Some see an enhanced role for NATO's Secretary General as a solution. Another idea is to link response plans to concrete time lines, automatically transferring authority to NATO command at an agreed level of crisis.

For certain member states, such proposals may go too far as they would require adjustments to national procedures for parliamentary oversight. There can be no doubt, however, that new challenges require creative thinking and further debate on the coordination of national and NATO response plans.

Coalitions vs consensus decisions

The same is true for the question if the alliance should allow for coalitions of the willing when it is impossible to achieve consensus among the 29 member states. Afghanistan and Libya are cases in which Western countries responded to a crisis by forming a coalition of the willing before transferring responsibility to NATO at a later stage. Would such a scenario be possible in an article 5 scenario?  Some see more flexibility as necessary and, in fact, unavoidable. Others consider the trend towards ad hoc'ism as potentially dangerous for alliance cohesion, especially if a coalition is formed because allies were unable to reach consensus.

To be sure, NATO (and the EU) allow individual member states or groups of allies to take the lead or to opt out of an operation. However, making the option of coalition warfare part of NATO's response plans risks undermining unity. For Norway as a small state it is a vital interest to maintain decision rules that are based on consensus.

The current political climate and Alliance resilience

The Trump administration was hardly mentioned at the seminar. Given the concerns voiced a year ago, this might be considered as a good sign. The President has confirmed America's commitment to the Alliance and important investments in European security, such as the European Deterrence Initiative, remain in place. At the same time, there can be no doubt that NATO's resolve and readiness is challenged by internal as well as external forces.

The seminar took place against the background of discussions on the appropriate response to a nerve agent attack on British soil, presumably at the hands of Russian authorities, but also amid concerns about a looming trade war between the US and its European allies. To strengthen resilience and to project stability, cooperation with partners, first among them the EU, remains high on the agenda. The ongoing Brexit negotiations were not part of the debates. However, their potential impact on European and transatlantic security – direct or indirect – remains a part of the context.

Furthermore, NATO will have to engage in a difficult discussion on its nuclear deterrence posture and it cannot avoid a dialogue with Russia. In the current climate of tension and mutual mistrust, it may be more important than ever to explain positions, and demonstrate transparency with regard to decisions and actions. In a situation in which the West needs strength through unity, transatlantic and intra-European cohesion is under pressure.

The importance of public support

Readiness also requires the support of the public that more investment in defence and more cooperation is necessary.  Workshop participants touched on the question of how to shape the message of the Alliance to its peoples and how to engage public opinion. Are lawmakers sufficiently informed about security issues to support the necessary investments in crisis prevention and crisis response?

There was disagreement as to what extent it is NATO's task, or the responsibility of national governments to inform and secure support from the broader political elite and the public. Either way, NATO summits should be seen as an opportunity to communicate the value of a strong alliance to domestic audiences.

Publisert 16. mars 2018 08:00.. Sist oppdatert 12. april 2018 13:41.