hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Why NATO needs a new Strategic Concept

“Where the Washington Treaty leaves open the balance between global and regional tasks, the Strategic Concept must specifically interpret geopolitical circumstances. What are the threats and what are the military implications? These are the two basic and essential questions the Strategic Concept must answer”

Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning

Why a new NATO Strategic Concept

By no later than 2030 NATO must be demonstrably able to fight and thus deter a high-end world war AND support front-line Allies to Europe’s south dealing with the consequences of potentially catastrophic collapse across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In spite of significant but modest progress on integrated air and missile defence and enhancements to the Alliance’s conventional deterrent at last week’s NATO defence ministerial the Alliance is at a tipping point between political credibility and military incapability. The cause of the crisis, for that is what it is fast becoming, is twofold: increasing pressure on US forces the world over and a refusal of Europeans to take on the bulk of the burden for their own defence.  A Strategic Concept would thus reset the what, the why, the where, the when and the how of Alliance action at a critical juncture.  The core message of the next Strategic Concept would also need to be clear: NATO is essentially a European organisation for Europeans supported by Americans and Canadians, not an American organisation for Europeans occasionally supported by Europeans. The reason why there is no new Strategic Concept is because there is no consensus in the Alliance over a new Strategic Concept. That is both telling and dangerous for it reveals a lack of cohesion that is the single biggest threat to the Alliance and why NATO so desperately needs a new Strategic Concept.

In making such a call I am in no way dismissing the inherent and implicit complexity in drafting such a Concept. The Alliance is not simply a vehicle for amassing sufficient military power to keep those who it does not want ‘in’, ‘out’; it is also a vehicle for keeping those who are ‘in’ ‘in’, and to ensure those ‘in’ do not fight others who are also ‘in’. As such NATO’s purpose is fourfold: the defence, deterrence, security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.  Its method is dual track: to generate sufficient capability, capacity and cohesion to deliver all four, whilst constantly seeking to engage adversaries and partners in dialogue. In the wake of the Cold War the centre of Alliance gravity shifted towards dialogue, now it must shift back towards military defence. The world is changing rapidly and adversely and the very lack of a new Strategic Concept is reinforcing the perception of adversaries and partners that the Allies are simply too divided, too weak and too often subverted by the idea that values alone can substitute for power.

A very act of a Strategic Concept would be an act of deterrence. First, it would re-establish a new 'contract' between Allied leaders and those in NATO charged with fulfilling the mission set them. Second, it would help establish the new political and military centre of gravity the Alliance desperately needs to credibly and simultaneously support strategic directions east, south and north. Third, it would reinforce deterrence by also demonstrating that the Alliance collectively understands the scope, pace and strategic direction of change, and the threat it is generating. Fourth, it would communicate resolve and clarity of purpose (unity of mission) to NATO citizens. Fifth, and perhaps most pressing of all, it would reassure the Americans that Europeans are serious about their own defence, understand the burdens it places on an increasingly over-stretched US, and are now willing to match strategic autonomy with strategic responsibility. Above all, a new Strategic Concept would demonstrate a shared level of shared strategic ambition vital to re-establishing a balance of relative power between the security environment and thus the roles and tasks of the Alliance to 2030.

Ostriches, heads and sand?

Why is a Strategic Concept so difficult for the Alliance? Too many of the West’s political leaders seem curiously unable to grip the scale of emerging threat and its implications for the Euro-Atlantic area. Worse, the high political tendency in many Allied countries is to keep defence off the political agenda. The rise of military China, the dangerous mix of economic instability and over-securitisation in Russia, the advance of a new era of military technologies, the erosion of the rules-based system, the toxic combination of demographic change, fundamentalism and fragile states across MENA, and a US under increasing pressure domestically from debt and external commitments suggest NATO needs not so much to adapt as reset. Then there is COVID-19. The 2019 NAT Military Strategy has been critically undermined by the crisis, or at least it will be. Therefore, the Alliance desperately needs to grip and demonstrably so the impact of COVID-19 on the ends, ways and means of Alliance defence, deterrence and outreach.

NATO faces existential choices.  The Alliance (or rather its nations) can continue to recognise only as much threat as it can politically afford and avoid all the fundamental challenges implicit in preparing a new Strategic Concept, or it can face them. The Alliance can continue to maintain the illusion of cohesion, organising nice leader photo-ops and well-drafted eloquent communiques, or it can confront all challenges square on, including cohesion-corrupting Chinese debt. The Alliance can continue to choose the short-term and the politically easy but such a course of inaction will quickly confirm that NATO is simply too politically fragile to meet both high-end and wide-angle strategic threats, its essential purpose.

Such contention-avoidance will see Europe locked into a virtual Ten Year Rule colluding in its own future shock. If that is the case then the future defence of Europe will soon become little more than a Potemkian village. Some would like to build such a ‘village’ around a coalition of worthy German-led continental European powers (the Eurosphere), whilst the Americans and British (the Anglosphere) quietly sail away from the Continent in their nuclear-powered vessels taking their German-offending nuclear weapons with them. That would be a profound mistake because it is the North American and European pillars together that is the real bedrock of credible Alliance defence and deterrence. Too harsh?  Last year Britain withdrew all but a tiny portion of its Army from the Continent, whilst the Americans are now threatening to withdraw some 28% of its already small force. The very process of embarking on a new Strategic Concept would help arrest this strategic drift into distant and barely engaged pillars. 

The new NATO and a shadow Strategic Concept

Power is relative. A transformed NATO is thus needed, not some ‘adapted’ paper tiger. Today's NATO is still far too analogue, and insufficiently digital. The new NATO would be constructed around a hybrid, cyber, hyper defence European pillar (with the Brits included). The hard core of the Alliance would be a twenty-first century multi-domain European Future Force able to respond to and deter high-end threats to the east and north of the Alliance, AND support front-line to the south in multiple and simultaneous emergences. The new NATO would be sufficiently Europe capable to enable the Americans to be strong wherever and when they are needed, and able to move fast anywhere in and around Europe. The act of this ‘Strategic Concept’ would help establish the necessary vision and ambition needed for such an Alliance to be realised. It would also finally set NATO on the road to resolving the politically toxic issue of transatlantic burden-sharing and give Europeans far more 'sovereign' control over their own defence within the framework of a re-vitalised transatlantic strategic relationship/partnership.

Next steps? In 2009, I chaired part of a Washington meeting about the then 2010 NATO Strategic Concept. At that meeting I made an historic offer to the then NATO Secretary-General and assembled leaders: Europeans would improve their military capabilities, if the Pentagon improved its coffee. Now is the time to be similarly ambitious, although I hold out little hope for Pentagon coffee. Sometimes the world of ideas must offer solutions and courses of action to the world of policy. This is one such moment. With each passing day the 2010 Strategic Concept looks ever more like a work of the ancients, eloquent and almost quaint in the world it describes, and NATO's role therein. Therefore, I call for the drafting of a shadow Strategic Concept produced by a group of the most experienced strategists and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic and which capitalises on the findings of the NATO Reflection Group. We have work to do! Let’s get on with it!

NATO is a warfighting, security-enhancing defensive alliance. It is NOT a military EU! It is time to remember that. NATO needs a new Strategic Concept and fast!

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 15 June 2020

NATO: Is Cohesion Killing Deterrence?

15 June, 2020

 Cohesion versus deterrence

Is NATO’s obsession with cohesion killing deterrence?  On the face of it the question seems silly because without political cohesion no alliance can function. In ‘NATO speak’ cohesion is established by finding common ground between the Allies on a whole raft of issues from threat perception to defence investment. The NATO bureaucracy is obsessed with cohesion, particularly around major political gatherings such as this week’s NATO Defence Ministerial. This is because ‘cohesion’ is critical to the ‘language’ of the ‘communique’ that is routinely issued at the end of such meetings.  Unfortunately, the NATO machine is so focussed on maintaining the appearance of cohesion that it will go to great lengths even when there is little or no agreement on substantive issues such as now. Indeed, I sometimes unsure whether NATO is a defence alliance or an armed conference organiser. The danger is, and it is a very real in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, that ‘cohesion’ will become a metaphor for a lowest common denominator NATO in which apparently ‘successful’ communiques issued but none of the real issues are addressed because they are too politically toxic. Over time, such defence pretence will kill the Alliance as maintaining the twin illusions of political solidarity and cohesion are deemed to be more important than credible defence and deterrence.     

To illustrate my concern there was an interesting high-level response to my last Analysis, The Guns of August 2020? Indeed, a spirited debate took place between myself and senior NATO and non-NATO people.  Below is my response to one senior NATO figure.  There are some minor changes to the original missive as I do not wish to reveal his identity and I am not in the business of embarrassing good people.

NATO now and next?

“Dear…, great to hear from you and as an Ally and citizen I very much hope next week's Defence Ministerial goes well. I will certainly look out for more support for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area. You have access to a far more detailed picture than I do and given my respect for you I am listening. Still, my self-imposed task is to be a critical friend of our Alliance and act as a part of an informal external Red Team that challenges the assumptions that, however efficient, all institutions create in order to simply make the machine work. The reason the plan to withdraw 9500 US troops is dangerous is twofold: now and next. Now, because of a combination of circumstances, and next because of what it implies about the future of the Alliance over the next decade. To be really reassured I would need to see the Ministerial address both.

Now: We face the Russian constitutional plebiscite on 1 July and only this week the extent of the economic damage began to emerge that COVID 19 has done to already weakened European economies. For example, according to HMG (British Government) figures the UK economy contracted by 20% in April alone due to the lockdown. The October 2019 NATO Military Strategy could not possibly have assumed the economic and political consequences of this crisis and its implications for European defence. 

Next: Faced with an economic crisis and its political consequences most Europeans tend to cut defence, Russians tend to exaggerate it. In that context, the plan to withdraw the troops is being presented in Europe as a political/tactical issue. In fact, it masks a fundamental US dilemma that is not unlike that faced by Imperial Britain in the 1890s. With the rise of the US and Germany as Great Powers it became rapidly clear to London that Britain could be strong in Europe, the Mediterranean/Suez or the Eastern Empire, but given the rapidly shifting correlation of forces not all three simultaneously, hence the 1902-23 Alliance with Japan.

That begs of Washington two fundamental questions that need to be answered now and communicated honestly to the Allies. First, with the rise of China as an aggressive real power peer competitor (Russia is exploiting Chinese power) how does the US intend to maintain relative military strength where it needs to be strong the world over. Second, how militarily strong does the US expect its most capable allies to aspire to be to enable the US to both maintain its own relative strength and its obligations to the Allies through the Alliance? Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing in the changing balance of power and Europe's retreat from such power that makes me at all sanguine about now, let alone 2030.

The bottom-line of NATO now and next is that the US will only be able to continue to afford Europeans the post 1949 security guarantee if Europeans do far more for their own security and defence. The minimum down payment on a revised sharing of transatlantic burdens would be a European multi-domain future force able to operate at the high-end of conflict and thus assure deterrence (the real business of NATO) if you Americans were forced to be engaged in great strength elsewhere. I see no such ambition.

My Oxford thesis was on British policy and the coming of war and one finding was that for all the appeasement of the age Britain did in 1932 scrap the rolling Ten Year Rule and in 1934 began to rearm. All I see in Europe today suggests to me a) Europeans continue to be locked into a kind of rolling virtual Ten Year Rule; b) the political culture herein is unable to grip the worst-case; and c) the only possible leader of Europe, Germany, lacks both the strategic culture such leadership demands, and is still far too intimidated by its own past to lead where it matters. Worse, some of the official language and responses (NATO Reflection Group?) sound like the reassuring assessments that the Foreign Office and the Berlin embassy fed back to the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments. They were at the time locked in a desperate struggle to escape the Depression and really did not want to be bothered with issues such as renewed military threat. Then, as now, there was a tendency to commission worthy reviews and commissions for political ends precisely to avoid facing the cost, consequence and reality of adverse strategic change. With all due respect to the NATO Reflection Group, Harmel it ain't!

Actions and consequences

As I said in my piece (The Guns of August 2020?), actions have consequences, but the US action is not the only one of concern. For example, the British Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence Review has already been delayed and all the signals I am picking up is that whilst the UK may signal its intention to maintain the 2%/20% commitment it will only do so through more creative accounting. Much of the rest of Europe is likely to follow suit. In that context, if the White House proceeds with the withdrawal of 9500 troops the timing could not be worse, either for the ministerial or the wider defence of Europe. Whilst I fully accept that a direct military attack on NATO is highly unlikely our colleague’s analysis is well-made. If the Kremlin does indeed embark on another land grab in Ukraine I see absolutely no political will on the part of Germany and other Europeans to do anything other than condemn such action with rhetoric. Moscow knows that. In 1982 I recall that it was Britain's decision to withdraw HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic (which was hotly contested inside HMG) which led Buenos Aires to disastrously miscalculate and invade the Falkland Islands. Again, actions (can) have consequences.

Let me thank you for engaging and I am genuinely glad you are optimistic as I learnt to trust your judgement many years ago. I also hope you are right to be optimistic about NATO's direction of travel. Will it arrive in time? The most dangerous period for the Allies on our eastern borders is precisely whilst such an adaptive journey is underway. The worst of all outcomes would be if you Americans are rendered steadily and relatively weaker over time and space than you need or should be simply because you are forced into adverse, even perverse choices to offset the military weakness of Europeans. Such weakness would be an open invitation to the likes of China and Russia to make US strategic calculations impossibly complicated at a time, place and manner of their choosing and far more quickly than many in Europe are willing to countenance. The pace and scale of China’s military rise cannot be over-stated. The implications for both the US and the Alliance can also not be over-stated. Is it on the agenda this week?

Therefore, if my concerns are really to be assuaged at the Defence Ministerial the one thing I would need to see is ministers specifically addressing the adaptation of the 2019 Military Strategy in light of the changed economic, political and strategic circumstances of the Alliance now, and how best next to maintain the ends, ways and means stated therein.

All best,


Julian Lindley-French

Sunday, 7 June 2020

The Guns of August 2020?

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

 Barbara W. Tuchman

 June 7th, 2020

The Guns of August

It is not the mission of this Analysis to scaremonger, but actions have consequences. The decision of President Trump to suddenly withdraw 9,500 of the 34,000 US troops in Germany, some 28% of a capability at the core of NATO deterrence, is one such action. Why is President Trump doing this, why is it potentially dangerous, what could be in President Putin’s mind, what could happen, where and when?

In the wake of the US decision Moscow has already announced it will reinforce the Western Military District (Western Strategic Command) with the Guards Motorised Rifle Sevastopol Red Banner Brigade. This force will support the Guards Red Banner Tank Army to “…perform tasks on ensuring the defence of the Russian Federation in the Western strategic direction”. This follows comments over the past week by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian General Staff who in referring to limited-scale Allied exercises accused the US and NATO of conducting “anti-Russian” activities close to the Russian border.  

Why is President Trump doing this?

With Joe Biden confirmed as the Democratic Party nominee for the November US presidential elections the White House is now in full campaigning mode.  The Trump decision to ‘bring the boys home’ must thus be seen as election gambit to appeal to his neo-isolationist election base. However, there are also deeper structural pressures growing on the US Armed Forces that Europeans must not discount. The rise of Chinese military power in East Asia is beginning to force uncomfortable choices on Washington over where and how best to use its increasingly over-stretched armed forces.  Europeans have long come to believe that the purpose of the US military is to act in their interests even if, at times, it may conflict with the American interest.  Therefore, President Trump’s decision must also serve as a warning to Europeans for the future.

There is another possible reason: the threat that Germany could abandon nuclear NATO.  In May 2020, the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell accused Berlin of refusing to support NATO’s policy on nuclear deterrence. This followed calls by Rolf Mutzenich, the SPD leader in the Bundestag, for Germany to insist upon the removal of US nuclear weapons from German soil. Allied to recent Pew research it suggests growing German ambivalence about the wider transatlantic relationship, Trump or no Trump.  President Putin then increased the political pressure on Germany by announcing that Russia might resort to a first strike nuclear policy in the event of a conventional military attack on Russia.  

Why is the decision potentially dangerous?

Much of Western Europe is distracted and disrupted by the COVID-19 emergency. Worse, behind the rhetoric the contemporary transatlantic relationship is close to breaking, not least because it now relies on the essential (it is certainly not ‘special’) strategic relationship between the US and Germany. Britain is in precipitous strategic decline and in 2019 effectively abandoned the defence of continental Europe by withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Germany. London is hunkering down behind its nuclear shield and has little or no influence on international affairs. Indeed, London seems to have less and less influence even over British affairs. For all President Macron’s talk of European strategic autonomy France is mired in deep debt and only has influence if Germany agrees. The rest of Western Europe is either not defence serious, has abandoned statecraft or enjoys a close relationship with Moscow that could well compromise the ability of the Alliance to act in an emergency.  Turkey is now so alienated from the rest of Europe it can no longer be relied upon to act during an Alliance emergency.

What’s in President Putin’s mind?

President Putin is again facing a difficult domestic situation and has just declared a COVID-19 state of emergency. Russia’s critical export of hydrocarbons has been crippled by the collapse of the oil and gas price and is unlikely to recover soon.  Since the bungled invasion of Georgia he has rebuilt the Russian Armed Forces at great cost. However, the force could be approaching peak capability that he will be unable to maintain if the economy continues to decline.  Putin is also losing popularity at home and needs a boost and the adventurist reflex in Russian nationalism must never be under-estimated.

Moscow has also noted the sharp deterioration in Sino-US relations over recent months.  It may be that China has now decided to bring to an end the ‘One China, Two Systems’ model.  In the first instance any such action could involve the military occupation of Hong Kong as a warning to Taiwan not to seek formal secession. Beijing and Moscow are clearly discussing anti-Western strategy.  With the US mired in the presidential elections and Europe impotent the summer of 2020 could be the perfect opportunity for Beijing and Moscow to support each other by creating simultaneous crises in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

What could happen, where and when?

If Russia acts it is unlikely to be through a direct force-on-force attack on NATO as it would be too dangerous.  Whilst Putin may hint at such an attack there will still be over 50,000 US personnel in Europe.  However, the chaos across much of Europe also makes it ripe for the exercise of complex Russian strategic coercion through the applied use of 5D warfare – deception, disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and implied and even actual destruction. As with all such past events the period immediately preceding such action might appear deceptively calm.

Where? Russia’s Western Military District stretches from Norway’s North Cape to Ukraine’s Donbass, where it abuts the Southern Military District and the Black Sea Region.  President Putin is increasing Russia’s military mass roughly halfway along that border so that it can exert pressure, possibly in support of non-military coercion to the north or south.  The nature of any Russian action would likely involve hybrid and cyber warfare attacks in all NATO and EU countries north and south of Ukraine and Belarus, possibly including military feints and deception.  However, any military focus would likely be on Ukraine, possibly with the objective of seizing the port of Mariupol (more likely), or launching a more ambitious incursion along the Donetsk, Mariupol, Melitopol, Odessa axis (less likely, but not impossible).  The invasion of Ukraine has cost Russia dear but it would be a mistake to believe such ‘cost’ would prevent further incursions.   

When could such an attack take place? In August 1914 Imperial Germany invaded Belgium at the start of World War One. In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin concluded the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact at the start of World War Two. In August 2008, President Putin used the distraction of the Beijing Olympic Games to invade Georgia.  So, August, when much of Europe has effectively gone to sleep for a month.

A dangerous trinity

In June 1914 few thought war in Europe was imminent. However, a dangerous trinity of opportunity, circumstance, military mobilisation, false assumptions and miscalculations rapidly led to catastrophe.  Something similar could be happening in Europe today. There is opportunity, dangerous circumstances, military mobilisation allied to de facto de-mobilisation and no doubt a whole raft of false and frankly quite desperate assumptions working their way down Kremlin corridors, as they have so often done in the past.

President Trump is also essentially right in his criticism of Europeans.  They do not do enough to defend themselves and the US is called upon too often to do too much with too many European leaders in denial of danger, Germans to the fore.  However, the decision to suddenly withdraw 9500 troops now is strategically cack-handed at best, and dangerously crass at worst.  President Trump might think he is being politically savvy, but it also suggests he is as strategically-illiterate as the European leaders he clearly despises. The only possible other explanation is that maybe President Trump has done a deal with President Putin. Is it a better deal than the one President Putin has with President Xi?

In 1963 British historian A.J.P. Taylor offered his “red button” theory of how World War One broke out. Taylor’s thesis was that given the nature of mass mobilisation and their reliance on railway timetables, once started they led irrevocably to war. There is much to be contested in Taylor’s thesis but European history is replete with moments when the momentarily powerful believed they would have no better opportunity, whilst the momentarily weaker seemed far weaker than they actually were. As Taylor said, “Human blunders do more to shape history than human wickedness”.  

The lesson of history? S++t happens!

 Julian Lindley-French