Izmir, Turkey. 7 March. 2014 is a strategic tipping point for NATO. The December end of major combat operations in Afghanistan is being foreshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine-Crimea. Ideally, at this pivotal moment NATO’s September 2014 Wales summit should consider the strategic and operational future of the Alliance into the 2020s. To that end, I am attending high-level conferences in Washington, Britain and Paris to consider those issues and will act as rapporteur for one of those meetings. It is against that backdrop I have just attended and addressed the Corps Commanders’ Meeting at Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey in support of Lt. General Hodges and his team. Are NATO corps ready for the coming challenges?
The basics; NATO has nine so-called Graduated Readiness Force (Land) (GRF-L) corps. Along with maritime and air forces they are the beating operational heart of the fighting Alliance – NATO’s hard corps. As such these forces are and will be the litmus test as to whether the world’s most successful politico-military alliance is fit for twenty-first century purpose.
They will need to be fit as the balance of military power is fast shifting east. This week it was announced that China would increase its defence budget this year by a further 12.2% to $131.57bn, which is probably some 15-20% below the actual figure. The ‘fruits’ of Russia’s massive military modernisation programme can be seen in Ukraine-Crimea in the body armour and equipment being displayed by the Special and Specialised Forces under General Anatoly Sidorov’s command.
In other words, once the Afghan dust has cleared NATO leaders will finally have to face a painful fact; this is the beginning of a new and dangerous strategic age. No longer can the certification and effectiveness of Alliance forces be measured purely in terms of counter-terrorism or security force assistance.
The key test will be the ability of NATO forces to deter, mitigate and if needs be fight at the high-end of conflict. President Putin invaded Ukraine-Crimea because he could. In all likelihood China will re-take Taiwan at some point by force if it can. Soft power and economic sanctions whilst important will not in and of themselves deter such military adventurism. Indeed, the only way for such military adventurism to be deterred will be for the Alliance to re-invent itself as a high-end force that is also effective across a broad conflict spectrum – both fighting force and partnership force.
And reinvent itself the Alliance must. First, this is one of those moments when NATO is looking at what is as close to a strategic blank sheet as it is possible to get. The end of major combat operations in Afghanistan will also mark the effective end of NATO’s almost exclusive focus on stabilisation and reconstruction since 1991. If the West together is to provide STRATEGIC stabilisation then the Alliance will once again have to become a hard alliance.
Second, for that to happen and given the economic backdrop in Europe the way NATO forces are generated and organised will need to be radically re-thought. The Alliance will need to be at the very forefront of a new way of armies, air forces and navies working together across five strategic domains – air, sea, land, cyber and space. Connectivity and interoperability (both actual and intellectual) will be the critical component of forces that will not so much operate together but operate as one.
So, what is my assessment of NATO’s corps? There were two NATOs on show in Izmir - hard corps and soft corps NATO. Some NATO nations get this and understand the need to re-generate Alliance deterrent credibility via a high-end force built on deployable strategic headquarters of which the corps are a key part. Other NATO nations reject this and continue to emphasise low-level peace support operations and security force assistance – a kind of strategic Telly Tubbies land. The trouble is that too many of Europe’s political leaders are also attracted to this fool’s paradise and all too keen to make the false economy of endless defence cuts. It is a kind of strategic appeasement.
Therefore, NATO leaders must consider two options urgently. The preferred option would be a reformed force re-established on corps that are themselves firmly established on a high-end warfighting capability. To that end a reform, experimentation, exercising and education development programme should ideally be put in place now to harmonise force concepts, structures, capabilities and doctrines. Another option is in effect what exists today – corps that are similar in name only, operating at very different levels of ambition and capability. At present several NATO nations seem profoundly opposed to the idea of high-end reform.
The high-end option would be defined purely in terms of twenty-first century military strategy with the focus on achieving a new balance between efficiency and effectiveness. This would see the number of corps reduced from the current nine to six with all corps able to provide deployed theatre command and thus rotate seamlessly through crises and conflicts.
if not hard corps NATO will be comprised of those Allied forces able and capable of taking on high-end military tasks. Soft corps NATO will be those forces only able to undertake the less challenging military tasks. Frankly, if that is to be NATO’s reality then the Alliance should be structured thus and the dangerous pretence ended hat unity of purpose and effort is anything but a fantasy.
However, there is another challenge that NATO commanders from SACEUR down need to grip quickly. Experience of the past twelve years of operations has severely undermined the credibility of European multinational formations in general and the corps concept in particular. Multinational formations have been disaggregated to support nationally-led provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan, been broken up to support US headquarters, or remained by and large political fantasy (EU Battlegroups).
Therefore, for Allied Land Command or indeed any other NATO command to generate all-important reform momentum the very case of such formations needs to be remade to political leaders – in terms of effectiveness AND efficiency.
My sense of the conference was of good people grappling with big issues and trying to back engineer grand strategic solutions via the military-strategic backdoor. They will only get so far. What they need is clear political guidance allied to a renewed requisite level of ambition that properly prepares NATO forces for the undoubted challenges ahead. Surely that is one lesson of President Putin’s adventurism – if that is our politicians have the courage to see that.
NATO: hard or soft corps?