“But this, that men are evill by nature, follows not from this principle [that every man will distrust and dread each other]; for though the wicked were fewer than the righteous, yet because we cannot distinguish them, there is a necessity of suspecting, heeding, anticipating, subjugating, self-defending, ever incident to the most honest and fairest conditioned”.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Trident Juncture 18
Alphen, Netherlands, 6 November. There is a certain historical symmetry to NATO holding a major Article 5 collective defence military exercise that spans the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month centennial of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end. Exercise Trident Juncture 18 (TJ18) is designed to test deterrence and response, as well as send a strategic message to Russia. As such, TJ18 is part of the Alliance’s increasing effort to ensure no NATO ally anywhere, ever again, faces a major war attack. Given that noble aim, how does Trident Juncture 18 compare with Russia’s recent Vostok 18 exercise and has TJ18 really strengthened deterrence?
Some facts. TJ18 is a maritime-amphibious (hence ‘Trident’) joint exercise designed to test Alliance forces and systems in a short, high-end war. TJ 18 is taking place in and off Norway and began on 25 October and will end on 23 November. The exercise involves some 40,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 ships from 30 nations. TJ18 involves air, sea, land, maritime, amphibious and Special Forces forged into a so-called ‘spearhead force’ designed to seize back NATO territory taken by a well-armed aggressor. TJ18 is divided into two main elements. The main ‘live’ exercise began on 25 October and ends tomorrow. After the Armistice commemorations (and deliberately so) a command post exercise will take place between 14 and the 23 November in which lessons will be identified and the scenario played out further. Although Russia claims TJ18 threatens its border with Norway even though the exercise is taking place some 200 km from it. That said, the exercise is clearly designed to send Russia a message about NATO’s determination to defend the strategically-vital North Cape of Norway and the Svalbard Archipelago.
TJ18 versus Vostok 18
How does TJ18 compare with Russia’s recent Vostok 18? Vostok 18 was somewhat bigger in scale and probably involved some 75,000 Russian troops (plus a relatively small number of Chinese forces), 1000 aircraft and up to 2000 tanks, possibly more. Moscow claimed Vostok 18 ‘involved’ some 300,000 troops but that inflated figure was arrived at by including whole units even if only small elements from them were actually engaged.
The respective aims of the two exercises are revealing. TJ18 is designed to test and validate NATO’s efforts to reconstitute a heavy defence through the re-creation of a ‘deep’ joint, mobile heavy reserve focussed on the NATO Response Force (NRF). The task of the NRF is to support small forward deployed units in the event of an emergency and act as a holding force until larger NATO forces can be generated and deployed. Vostok 18 was part of the military-strategic development plan of Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. His over-arching aim is to enhance the force projection of Russian forces by making then more joint, agile and ‘intelligent’.
Improved theatre and battlefield mobility are central to Gerasimov’s thinking and to that end, he is replacing the old motor rifle and old-style tank divisions that were the main strike elements of Soviet forces with more airmobile forces similar to those pioneered by the Americans. He is also trying to create much greater tactical autonomy at junior leadership levels to enable Russian forces to better ‘think’ their way around an operational problem. During Vostok 18 General Gerasimov emphasised the need for ‘innovation’ via what he called ‘non-standard solutions’ when he set the Central and Eastern Military Districts against each other on opposing strategic directions. Significant elements of the Western Military District facing NATO were also engaged during Vostok 18. General Gerasimov was only partially successful during Vostok 18 but his unstinting efforts to create a new form of ‘shock army’ will doubtless continue
Sufficient Notice to Surprise?
Is Russia planning an attack? All of the time. Is Russia going to attack tomorrow? No. There are four things that make contemporary Russia dangerous (even to itself) and thus a vigilant NATO. First, Russia is developing military capabilities and capacities that could give it local superiority for a critical period at a time and place of its choosing. Second, neither Russian society nor its economy is being reformed to adapt to the twenty-first century. Third, the weight and burden of the security state (including defence) are too high on a Russian economy that is overly-dependent on the export of oil and gas for income. Fourth, there is no obviously peaceful succession plan for the orderly transfer of power from President Putin when he dies, or when he and his family are sufficiently secure for him to step down. In other words, Russia is strategically and politically volatile
To properly understand the strategic utility of Vostok 18 it is necessary to look beyond the exercise itself. Russia is fast developing a new concept of warfare that I have dubbed ‘4D’ warfare. In a Gerasimov-led 4D war disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction, flavoured to taste with a ‘liberal’ sprinkling of deception (Maskirovka), would be unleashed in sequence. One objective would be to keep NATO allies politically and socially off-balance so that they were singularly and collectively distracted from Moscow’s real aim – strategic surprise. It is vital for General Gerasimov to mask any strategic surprise so that Russian forces could concentrate prior to an attack either unnoticed or uncontested. The maximum moment of vulnerability for Russian forces would be as they concentrate, however, ‘dispersed’ General Gerasimov would like his forces to remain prior to any attack.
Plugging NATO’s thirty-day gap
Does TJ18 suggest NATO could combat my worst-case scenario? Not as yet. There is a strange symmetry between Vostok 18 and TJ18 which should worry NATO planners. General Gerasimov is building, in effect, a thirty-day crash, bang, wallop force. If the force has not achieved its political and strategic goals after thirty days President Putin would likely face one of four options: threaten to use short and theatre range nuclear weapons, stop and hold what ground has been gained; embark on a much longer war than for which his forces are designed, or withdraw.
The NATO dilemma, which is also implicit in the time it took to get TJ18 in place, is that the bulk of its forces could not move in any strength prior to ‘D plus 30’. On paper at least, given the so-called ‘Notice to Move’ of both the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and NATO Response Force (NRF), they might meet the thirty-day challenge. In reality, it is highly questionable that NATO has sufficient forces at sufficient readiness in sufficient strength to counter any such Russian military adventure. It is even more questionable whether the ‘heavier’ forces NATO European nations are required to have ready would be available to Allied commanders by ‘D plus 90’, let alone ‘D plus 60’.
That is why my friend and colleague Hans Binnendijk pioneered the 4 x 30 concept for the 2018 Brussels Summit by which 30 combat battalions, 30 combat squadrons and 30 combat ships would be ready to go within 30 days of an emergency being declared. Tellingly, the Americans wanted those forces ready to go in 10 days, but it was the Germans who led efforts to ease it out to thirty days. In other words, NATO European forces might be ready to go just when President Putin could be picking up the phone to some future German chancellor to tell her he has achieved his strategic objectives of rebuilding a buffer between the Russian Federation and NATO. The Baltic States?
No Action Talk Only?
Exercise Trident Juncture has revealed the progress towards the enhanced readiness and responsiveness of Allied forces NATO has made through its significant command and force structure reforms. As such the exercise is an important step on the road to reinforcing deterrence. However, TJ18 has also revealed NATO’s eternal weakness: that reforms of the Alliance itself also require the European Allies to reform and improve their own forces and that the defence of Europe is still too dependent on over-stretched Americans combat forces. As yet, NATO Europeans are still more talk than action.
Such strategic sloppiness matters because to be truly credible NATO needs to convince the likes of President Putin and General Gerasimov that the thirty-day gap has well and truly been plugged. If not, and assuming the Americans are not mired in a crisis elsewhere, Washington, not NATO would need to take command in an emergency and move with a few trusted allies. NATO? Coalitions would well prove the death of it.