hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 4 March 2016

A Tale of Two NATOs

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Brussels and Milan. Week commencing 29 February. This week has for me been a tale of two NATOs. It has also been very sobering. On Wednesday I spent the day at NATO Headquarters in Brussels being briefed by senior NATO officials on Alliance planning in my capacity as Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association and in support of our president, my good friend Fabrizio Luciolli. Yesterday, I had the honour of chairing someone hundred senior officers from across the Alliance at the Eagle Eye Seminar for NATO Rapid Deployment Corps, Italy (NRDC-ITA) near Milan.

Let me be clear. The job of this blog is to speak truth unto power. My aim is to do so in a respectful manner and to respect the insights into policy and planning I am given. This responsibility is something I take very seriously indeed. And, for obvious reasons I cannot and will not go into details. Equally, as a NATO citizen and taxpayer I will not stay silent when I witness dangerous nonsense. Indeed, I have a duty to my friends in the east and south of our Alliance to speak out. Frankly, this week I witnessed an enormous and growing chasm between what NATO HQ thinks is happening at the military sharp-end of the Alliance, and the reality.  

What is causing this chasm? In a private conversation one officer said to me that there were not only two NATOs, but three. The NATO political structure seemed to exist in one bubble, the NATO command structure in another bubble, whilst the NATO force structure existed in an entirely different bubble of its own.  

Let me illuminate this point. At NATO HQ the emphasis was on preparing a successful Warsaw Summit in July. This is not the first time I have witnessed the ‘summits for summits sake’ culture that permeates NATO’s upper political and policy corridors. It is not the fault of those charged with the mission of preparing. The fault lies as ever with the Alliance’s (mainly European) strategically-inept politicians. They are driving a retreat from the uncomfortable but necessary culture of worst-case policy planning, into a culture that can best be described as ‘we only recognise as much threat as we can politically afford’.

Let me put my concerns in my strategic perspective. Much will be made by Alliance political leaders at the Warsaw Summit of the progress made since the benchmark NATO Wales Summit of September 2014. There will indeed have been some progress. Specifically, much will be made of the development of the so-called Spearhead Force or Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and the enhanced NATO Response Force. However, it is all too little, and possibly too late.

For example, critical to the development of those two vital forces is the exercising and training vital to render then credible as forces (and thus deterrents). At NATO HQ in Brussels I was told that the exercising of those forces was not just a central policy plank, but that it was being driven forward at speed and to effect. In Milan a day later I was told the complete opposite by the people on the front-line. The exercise planners were being starved of funding and the lessons-learnt from each major exercise was not being properly acted upon across the Alliance force structure mainly due to issues of cost. Worse, whilst NATO’s cutting edge forces looked good on paper they lacked critical elements, particularly key enablers and logistics. This is nonsense!

Critically, the planning assumptions behind the forces seem to bear no relation to what an adversary, such as Russia, could bring to bear in the early phases of a rolling and aggregating hybrid warfare campaign against the Baltic States. Again, I will not reveal details but the bottom-line is this; Russia could bring far more forces far more quickly into action than NATO. As I remarked yesterday; if deterrence fails NATO is faced with the option of either fighting a long war, or accepting the de facto loss of the Baltic States. This is again absolute nonsense!

Furthermore, there seems to be absolutely no global situational awareness at NATO’s upper levels or little appetite to really consider just how dangerous the situation is across the Middle East and North Africa. Specifically, the implications for Europe of wholesale state collapse across the region are enormous. What if a conflict breaks out in Asia-Pacific in parallel? Would an over-stretched America be able to continue to fill the gaps in Europe’s defences caused by the strategic indolence of its leaders? Again, this is nonsense!    
Political irresponsibility at the highest level is fast turning NATO into the strategic equivalent of a Potemkin village, a beautiful façade that hides a vacuous reality. Therefore, if the Warsaw Summit achieves anything it MUST begin to close NATO’s yawning strategy-reality-capability-affordability gap by refocusing all Alliance structures on the worst-case. If not our enemies and adversaries will drive a big red London bus (or perhaps a Russian tank) straight through the enormous chasm that now exists between what the political and policy leaders seem to think military NATO can do, and what military NATO can actually do.  This is really nonsense!

The bottom-line is this; effective NATO deterrence will only be established if NATO’s forward presence is in strength, reinforced by a properly enhanced NATO Response Force, which in turn is allied to a credible ability of Alliance forces to overcome Russia’s growing and impressive anti-access, area denial (A2AD) capability. And that said NATO forces are able to deploy in sufficient force and time to match Russian deployments. At present that is not the case. Indeed, it is still far from being the case.

Do you get that leaders?

Julian Lindley-French

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