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The next NATO

27 July 2015

Note: This is an updated version of the original article that was first posted on May 29, 2015.

The primary colors are all mixed up. The whole numbers are broken down. The big situations cease to excite.” W.H. Auden,The Age of Anxiety

The 65-year-old alliance is at an inflection point as attention shifts from distant conflicts in Central Asia to those in Europe. Required is a new model for the structure and mission of NATO that will address threats that were not imagined in the 1950s.

In early 2015, the US European Command announced that 12 A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft were deploying to Europe for a six-month rotation, beginning at the end of February. The move is operationally relevant —the A-10’s tank-killing and close-air support capability is in demand by Eastern European NATO allies concerned that an emboldened Russia may seek to challenge NATO elsewhere along the Alliance’s frontier.

The deployment also has a strong symbolic value and is part of a broader US effort to signal to both Russia on the one hand, and Eastern European allies on the other, the depth of US commitment to its allies during a time that former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in April 2014 called the “greatest crisis to European security since the end of the Cold War.”

As intense and affecting as the current crisis in Ukraine and prospects of growing tension with Russia are for NATO, its challenges run much deeper and are more complex than even those posed by an irredentist Russia driving unrest in Eastern Europe.

Over the past 18 months, NATO and its member states have been confronted by a rapidly shifting strategic context—one in which the primary colors have been mixed up. Assumptions buttressing Western-led and global security frameworks are being challenged and exposed, driving multi-dimensional crises in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. This has generated broader instability and proliferation concerns in the Middle East and increasing strategic competition in the Western Pacific, which the US is seeking to join more fully. In addition, asymmetric threats, such as cyber threats and disruptive innovations in technology and tactics are enabling more actors to affect the threat environment facing NATO.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of NATO transitioning from 12 years of combat operations in Afghanistan. Deterioration of the security environment in Afghanistan in 2015 and afterward—likely or possible, according to many expert analyses—will raise difficult questions for NATO and its partners as they consider increasing insecurity and instability in Central Asia, the borders of which have moved closer to Europe as the result of Europe expanding its influence eastward.  

This changed and changing strategic context has brought NATO to an inflection point, requiring an evaluation of roles, missions, structures, capabilities, and membership of an alliance that can no longer simply pivot the old alliance to meet novel threats, or rejuvenate old structures and behaviors to meet tensions that are difficult to resolve. These threats, challenges, and tensions must be addressed both individually as part of the creation of a realistic vision about what the Alliance can—and should—be for NATO to maintain efficacy as a constructive and robust force, shaping European and transatlantic security in an increasingly anxious age.

Perceptions, priorities, and interests

The most affecting, demanding and potentially inhibiting of these challenges will be reconciling the differing perceptions and prioritization of the threats facing NATO among its 28 member states—especially the perceptions of the threat posed by Russia.

For NATO’s eastern and Baltic allies, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has played into existential concerns and validated pervasive and long-standing perceptions of Russia as vengeful, resurgent, and rapacious, seeking to roll back NATO, shatter the European Union, embarrass the US and reassert itself in the former Soviet space.

Disquiet in Eastern Europe, though, is rooted not just in the what of Crimea’s absorption and conflict in Ukraine, but also in the how of Russia’s efficient implementation of “hybrid warfare” tactics to achieve its objectives. This approach combines, among other things, the innovative use of the following:

  • Covert and information operations
  • Varying techniques of internal subversion
  • The provision of advanced conventional weapons and asymmetric electronic warfare weapons to proxy militias
  • Direct intervention of Russian troops

On this last point, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding general of US Army forces in Europe (USAREUR) estimated that 12,000 Russian troops were in Ukraine in early March and 29,000 were in Crimea.

To NATO members bordering Ukraine and Russia, this is an approach that could plausibly be replicated in states with large Russian minorities, particularly Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. It is also clear that this is an approach for which NATO was, and still is, not fully prepared. As one senior Latvian defense official noted during a high-level international conference on the Ukraine conflict held in the southern Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk in February, one of the most notable surprises of the Ukraine crisis has been “the extent to which NATO's strategy seems incapable of dealing with Russia's 'proxy' or 'hybrid war'."

Western and southern European NATO allies have a less urgent view of the Russian threat to NATO and to European security and stability, influenced by a heightened awareness of the threats emanating from the Middle East, and West and North Africa with the potential for proliferation of violence, weapons and extremism across the Mediterranean. Turkey, whose prioritization and perceptions of the threat environment are crucial to determining the trajectory of the future of the Alliance, also views these southern threats as more immediate.

Many in Western and Southern Europe also maintain more sanguine views of Russia itself that are tempered by economic engagement with Russia, especially in energy commerce, and by relative geographic distance from Russia. Indeed, in early March of 2014, the European Commission released a controversial draft version of a policy document entitled Toward a New Neighborhood Policy that appeared to advocate for more strategic engagement with Russia. Using relatively vague language, suggesting that the current European Neighborhood Policy—which provides a framework for engagement with 16 states on the periphery of the EU—should be expanded to “allow for more flexible ways of working with the neighbors of neighbors” and more direct queries of what measures could be taken to “ensure greater coherence between the European Neighborhood Policy and the EU’s relations with Russia and with partners in Central Asia.”

Such policy initiatives lack unanimous support among Western and Southern European states, but they do reinforce a growing perception of a Europe divided in its views of Russia and its intent and objectives. This view was provocatively and starkly conveyed by a Polish politician speaking at a Europe-Ukraine summit in Lodz, Poland, on February 17 (quoted in Jane’s Defence Weekly). He observed that "European security is drifting in three opposite directions: the northern Europeans are afraid of what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's success in proxy war bodes for them; the Western Europeans, motivated by financial self-interest, think that Russia won't be a menace as long as they pretend it isn't; the Southern Europeans are, country by country, trying to make the best deal they can with Moscow."

Differing perceptions and threat priorities also have a transatlantic dimension, especially as the US military leadership has articulated an increasingly unambiguous perception of Russia as a state determined to test NATO, undermine alliances, and actively oppose US interests and leadership. As the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey noted in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on  March 4, Russia’s activities in Eastern Europe are “designed to create uncertainty among our allies.”

Missions, credibility, and capabilities

The ongoing debate around threat perception and prioritization will have implications for how NATO interprets its core mission of ensuring the stability, security, and sovereignty of its member states; who will be responsible for doing so; and what capabilities the Alliance and its member states can bring to bear in support of this mission.

The debate over the future mission of NATO is frequently framed as being between prioritizing regional deterrence, as NATO stressed for 45 years, and prioritizing out-of-area operations to disrupt threats before they get to NATO’s borders, as the Alliance has done since 2002. Currently, however, NATO has a credibility gap that will hinder its ability to carry out either mission, much less both as may be required. NATO was unable to deter Russian adventurism in Ukraine, which has led to significant unease among NATO’s Eastern and Baltic allies over the credibility and deterrent value of NATO’s foundational Article 5 collective security commitments.

In addition, NATO may be forced to consider a scenario in which traditional concepts of deterrence do not work with a Russia that thinks about its strategic alternatives and objectives differently from its Soviet predecessor and from the previously prevailing perceptions of Russia’s preferences and proclivities. For example, a proud and plausibly vengeful Russia that blames the US and NATO for causing its prolonged decline is apt to behave in ways that may upset NATO’s strategic calculations and generate genuine strategic surprise, placing a premium on developing a more complete and nuanced understanding of attitudes and assumptions of Russia’s elite that are challenging NATO and its members.

Moreover, a review of recent out-of-area deployments to Afghanistan and Libya reveal operational successes for NATO, but struggles to leverage these successes to achieve the strategic objectives of enhanced political and societal security and stability.

Even if NATO is able to emphatically establish renewed credibility as a strategically effective, cohesive and active military alliance—and deploying A-10s and the discussed deployment of a US armored brigade to Europe are a strong start—questions will remain about military capabilities, especially in the strategic context in which the US is likely to be balancing its sequestration-restricted resources between Europe, the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, and the Middle East.

NATO member states possess highly-competent forces and advanced military technologies and capabilities, but declining defense budgets among Europe’s largest militaries leads ineluctably to two credibility and cohesion-sapping outcomes: diminished European capabilities and a growing gap in capabilities between the US and its allies.

While allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia—resolved in the wake of the Ukraine crisis to dedicate a bigger percentage of GDP to defense spending, these welcome incremental investments in defense are unlikely to fundamentally improve NATO’s ability to deal with the full suite of threats facing the Alliance and its members if Western European militaries continue to experience declines in, or flat, spending.

According to IHS Jane’s, Western European defense spending as a whole has decreased from $267.7 billion in 2009 to $237.7 billion in 2014, while NATO as a whole has 13 of the top 20 fastest declining defense budgets worldwide in the past two years, including the US.  By 2019, the Alliance will constitute less than half of the global defense spend for the first time.

Spending more will be a critical first step to ensuring the capabilities required for Western and Southern European powers to continue to play up to their expectations, to the expectations of the US and to the expectations of the Eastern allies. Still, capability development requires more than mere spending. It requires smart spending, opening an opportunity for the new NATO to be creative in balancing increased threats with fiscal and economic realities; for example, by encouraging a more collaborative and collective approach to procurement that emphasizes the coordinated development of national specializations in capabilities critical for NATO’s collective security.

NATO has been a remarkable and resilient alliance. Over 65 years, it has played a leading role in shaping transatlantic and global geopolitics and security and has demonstrated the capacity to recalibrate, to take on new missions in response to sudden and emphatic shifts—the end of the Cold War and the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001—in the transatlantic strategic context.  

Today’s realignment challenge is more daunting. NATO now has to meet competing and novel external threats occurring in new geographies with new kinds of actors and new kinds of capabilities in a way that it never experienced before.

Subtle and provocative thinking that balances responses to immediate exigencies with longer-term strategic objectives and visions is critical both to avoid an Alliance that is overextended, fragmented, tiered, retrenched, or even hollow, and to develop compelling frameworks for bounding this new and complex strategic context and better understanding the priorities, proclivities, and perceptions of the actors operating in it. Ultimately, NATO will need a compelling vision about what NATO can—and should—be in this environment, at least until the next series of game-changing challenges and opportunities emerge.

Tate Nurkin is Senior Director, Thought Leadership, IHS Markit Aerospace, Defense and Security
Posted 27 July 2015

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