“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”.
President Theodore Roosevelt
The Riga Test
October 20th, 2021. The Riga Test concerns the good citizens of Latvia’s capital city and whether or not they can sleep in their beds safe in the knowledge that NATO is defending them. The just finished Riga Conference 2021 was another milestone event, and I have had the honour of attending most of the Riga Conferences since 2006. I do so out of solidarity with my fellow Europeans and because Rigans live on the front-line of freedom. Riga is thus the perfect place to test the health and utility of the Alliance. This year? I am worried. For the first time since 2006 a senior figure told me that some Latvians are becoming fearful for their future. What I detected for the first time is that Latvians, ever conscious of history, can smell possible betrayal in the air, maybe not tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow?
The key to moderating any successful panel is the quality of the people on it. At this year’s event I had the honour of chairing His Excellency, Ambassador Tomasz Szatkowski, the Permanent Representative of Poland to the North Atlantic Council, Baiba Braže, Assistant NATO Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy, and Dr Erik Brattberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The title of our session was, what is the Future of NATO under the new Strategic Concept? Good question.
Riga Conference 2021
As is my predilection I kicked off the panel with a characteristically lame joke. I pointed out to the assembled great and good that I was a fan of Sheffield United Football Club. ‘The Mighty Blades’, as United are known by me and my fellow delusionals, are a wonderfully cohesive team, but we are also rubbish. NATO? Right now, I am drafting a Shadow NATO Strategic Concept for The Alphen Group which I have the honour to chair. The real NATO Strategic Concept, the where, why, how, when and with whom and what for the next decade, will probably be the most important such Alliance document since the very first in January 1950 which was afforded the glaringly obvious title, “The Strategic Plan for the Defence of North Atlantic Region (DC 6/1)”.
Frankly, if I had my way the 2022 document would be entitled “The Strategic Plan for the Future Security and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area’. That will not happen for a whole host of politically irrelevant reasons, even if privately NATO officials are deeply concerned. First, the thirty Allied nations no longer really agree about what is more important collective defence, crisis management, or co-operative security. Second, too many Allies continue to recognise only as much threat as they can afford. Consequently, NATO faces an acute ends, ways and means crisis and there are simply not enough forces and resources, particularly European forces and resources. They find it hard to undertake even today’s spectrum of missions around the 360 degrees of Alliance commitments that NATO has signed up to, let alone what’s coming next. Third, NATO strategic concepts are fast becoming like a rich aunt’s Christmas tree, ever bigger, ever gaudier, and with ever more baubles hanging from it. The 2022 Strategic Concept will have a whole box of baubles hanging from it that will have little or nothing to do with the strategic defence of the Euro-Atlantic area, such as climate change and women and security. Don’t get me wrong, these are vitally important issues with which I sympathise, but they are not NATO’s core business. If that statement offends the defence woke, then so be it.
The consequent danger is that Strategic Concept 2022 will be yet more NATO muddling through to some lowest common denominator of political convenience. A smorgasbord of political euphemisms drafted to keep everyone happy (even President Macron) which says everything and thus nothing. It is already happening. The word is that the most important goal of the Strategic Concept will be to maintain political cohesion at any price, even if ‘political cohesion’ is simply a metaphor for a rubbish NATO that can at best bluff deterrence and pretend defence, particularly on the Alliance’s eastern and northern flanks.
The twin causes of Latvians' concerns is China-warped US military over-stretch and a growing crisis of deterrence and commitment in Western Europe, primarily, Britain, France and Germany. The latter is caused mainly by a lack of solidarity with Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, and a profound lack of trust in each other. The consequences might not be apparent in Western Europe, but they are in Latvia, and the other two Baltic States. At the very least, NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence will need to be significantly further enhanced with more forces, as well as significant investment in areas such as critical infrastructure protection and military mobility.
The further west and south one goes across Europe the more one also hears the argument that Russia would never dare attack the NATO Baltic Allies. Really? How do they know if the Russians themselves don’t? All NATO can (and must) do is assess Russia’s political and economic stability, military capability, strategic opportunity, its stated intent and recent actions, none of which would put me at my ease if I were a citizen of Riga. The very nature of Russia and its governance makes it vulnerable to sudden and potentially dangerous changes of political direction that could lead to a whole host of possible outcomes. These could range from a Gorbachev-like ‘new deal’ with the West to an ultra-nationalist military adventure towards the west, or just good old Russian political and economic collapse.
Riga and Risk
Given that reality the essential question Strategic Concept 2022 must answer is what will it take to both deter Russia and at the same time help stabilise NATO’s southern flank and deal with the threat of terrorism? First, NATO will need the necessary collective strategic ambition to meet both threats. NATO is a worst-case, high-end, defensive military alliance or it is nothing. NATO’s critical dilemma is that it is organised around the US and both Washington’s national security and military strategies are being warped by the military rise of China. Put simply, the US can no longer be strong all of the time everywhere. Consequently, NATO’s worst-case reality over the next decade would be a US forced to confront simultaneous engineered major crises from the Indo-Pacific to the Arctic, whilst an under-armed Europe meanders along in the ‘peaceful’ fantasy of the Euro-world with militarily Lilliputian Europeans arguing endlessly over this bit of EU competence or that. The irrelevant in pursuit of the meaningless at the expense of the over-committed.
Second, NATO will need the right amount of the right military force and civilian capability across a new spectrum of hybrid, cyber and high-end hyper war to maintain even a minimally credible deterrence posture. At a conference of senior NATO representatives and officials I suggested the next ten years of military adaptation could see the equivalent of the previous seventy years of military technological transformation given the changing nature and character of war. A step change is already apparent in the technology of war that could drastically shorten the time between decision to act and military objective, much of it driven by emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonic glide systems and drone swarms that will transform NATO’s defence space.
I really don’t like saying “I told you so” (well, in fact, I do), but with each passing day the dark vision at the start of my latest brilliant and very reasonably-priced Oxford book, Future War and the Defence of Europe, is being proven correct. In August, the Chinese launched a global reach Long March hybrid ballistic missile and hypersonic nuclear-capable manoeuvrable ‘glide’ system. The recent large Russian ZAPAD 21 military exercise on Latvia’s doorstep not only tested a host of robotic systems but also left an ominously large ‘military footprint’ in Moscow’s client state, Belarus. Add to the mix Nordstream 2 and Germany’s growing reliance on Putin for its energy Russia is steadily and cleverly deploying the means to coerce and, if needs be threaten, much of Europe into compliance.
Riga Test 2021
One test of Strategic Concept 2022 for me, and thus NATO’s responsibility to the well-being of the people of Riga will be a commitment by Canadian and European allies to create by 2030 (at the very latest) an Allied Command Operations Heavy Mobile European Force (AMHF). The AMHF would dramatically reinforce NATO's Forward Presence and anywhere around NATO’s flanks with a heavy, fast moving force. The AMHF might be further strengthened by moving HQ ARRC from sleepy Gloucestershire to somewhere in the 1500km gap between Multinational Corps Northeast on the Polish-German border and Latvia’s border with Russia. The AMHF would also need to be the outcome of real European strategic ambition, a high-end, first responder allied Future Force able to act from sea-bed to space and across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. The AMHF would also be the heartbeat of the NATO Military Strategy sufficiently robust and responsive, and held at a sufficient level of readiness, to meet all and any threats to the territory of the Euro-Atlantic Area in the first instance.
The AMHF would afford NATO a real trip-wire deterrent posture by moving far beyond the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and the enhanced NATO Response Force (eNRF). It would also act as a ‘synergizer’ enabling the Alliance to not only exploit emerging and disruptive technologies, but critically maintain a high degree of interoperability with fast evolving US forces, a key component of credible deterrence. Finally, the AMHF would be central to Allied efforts to introduce artificial intelligence, super/quantum computing, big data, machine-learning, drone swarming, hypersonic weapon systems into the NATO Order of Battle and thus embed the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture in hyper-fast warfare which will be critical to the credibility of the future NATO.
Rigour, Riga and Russia
The real test of Strategic Concept 2022 will be whether or not it reinforces deterrence in the Baltic States to such an extent that Russia would not even think about invading under any circumstances. NATO was founded to be a ‘don’t even think about it’ alliance. The problem is that invading the Baltic States is precisely what President Putin and General Gerasimov are thinking about. That does not mean any such invasion is going to happen tomorrow, nor does it mean Russian forces would go beyond Lithuania into Poland, but Moscow is certainly keeping such an attack open as both an option, as well as a lever ,to coerce increasingly uncertain Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Tant pis? Well no. If the Baltic States were lost it is hard to believe the likes of Germany would be willing to mount a rescue mission and in that case NATO would be finished. NATO’s core, core business is thus not really defence at all, but rather deterrence. In short, such a defeat would mean the end of NATO as a credible alliance and President Putin would like nothing more to be his legacy. Therefore, Strategic Concept 2022 must not be yet another exercise in floppy political short-termism at the expense of rigorous longer-term strategic realism.
Years ago at a big NATO bash I upset one secretary-general by publicly disagreeing with him about the purpose of strategic concepts. He suggested that the main purpose was to reach out to publics, particularly young people. No, I demurred, the clue is in the name. The purpose of a strategic concept is to re-establish and re-confirm the essential contract between political leaders, who set NATO’s strategic direction of travel, and those Alliance officials charged with carrying out their instructions. Unfortunately, ever since NATO strategic concepts became part of the public domain they have lost their essential strategic rigour and are more like party political manifestos than over-arching political strategy for a military-strategic alliance. Comparing the 1950 Strategic Concept with its 2010 descendant is like comparing Tolstoy’s War and Peace to Disney’s Frozen II.
Strategic Concept 2022 must champion the return of Alliance rigour because strategy drives policy and planning. Rigour will be vital if Riga is to be truly secure in the face of a restless Russia. NATO is at a critical strategic inflection point and my message to NATO leaders responsible for the Strategic Concept and the future peace of Europe is necessarily blunt. Only NATO can generate the necessary power to guarantee Europe’s peace, but for NATO to do the job all the citizens of its democracies ask of it there can be no more political blah blah dressed up as sound strategy. You, NATO leaders, will betray the people of Riga, my fellow free Europeans, if at the 2022 Madrid Summit you again put your short term politics before their long-term freedom. Now, more than ever, NATO needs a Strategic Plan for the Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area if it is to eventually pass Riga Test 2030, the real purpose of NATO Strategic Concept 2022. Don’t screw up!Julian Lindley-French