From slogan to reality: implementing a true response forge?

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Guillaume Lasconjarias
Guillaume Lasconjarias

Research adviser, NATO Defense College

When the 28 NATO allies gathered for the summit in Newport, Wales last September 2014, the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s aggressive behaviour were high on the agenda and dominated the discussions. Some commentators urged the alliance “not to squander the opportunity… to address some fundamental problems”. One of the key demands focused on how to re-energise NATO as a credible and relevant alliance, able to fulfil its core tasks and especially that of collective defence. In short, the goal was to reassure the member states – and somehow partners too – by showing determination and political willingness to act. The major outcome of the summit was thus the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), which consists of reassurance and adaptation measures meant to “respond to the changes in the security environment on NATO’s borders and further afield that are of concern to allies”.

Furthermore, and given the fact that NATO is first and foremost a military alliance, the emphasis was placed on revamping what NATO already had in its tool box, namely the decade-old NATO Response Force (NRF). This force, established after the Prague Summit of 2002, was conceived to bring a rapid military response to emerging crises all over the world, ready for out-of-area engagements wherever and whenever the alliance would need to intervene at short notice. Ten years on, a lack of political will has meant the NRF has been used only in non-combat operations such as disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

With the Ukrainian crisis, and a major change in the strategic environment, the reluctance that deprived the NRF from showing its claws may have vanished. The announcement at the summit in Wales of the creation of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a new 4,000-strong spearhead brigade able to intervene on short notice, underlines that something has changed.

True, founding a new stand-by force (the VJTF) within an already existing stand-by force (the NRF) seems strange and raises questions such as, “is this operational answer the most relevant one?” and “does it contribute to strengthening and reinforcing NATO’s posture?” Whatever its name, one should agree that the real need is to bolster the existing asset, making it more usable, better prepared and deployable. In short, to change and evolve by making the best of what the nations possess in an era of fiscal austerity and war-weary public opinion.

This is not new. In recent years, NATO has previously proved itself able to conduct a profound reorganisation of its Command and Force structures while maintaining a presence in Kosovo, fighting in Afghanistan and over Libya, dealing with piracy off the Horn of Africa, and engaging with numerous partners. In addition, to ensure improved preparedness and response capability shortfalls, the previous Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, launched two major initiatives to bring nations together in order to guarantee that NATO would be able to operate as successfully in the future as it has in the past. The Smart Defence Initiative aims to build capacity together and answer mainly to procurement issues, while the Connected Forces Initiative aims to operate these capacities together.

Interoperability goes beyond a technical matter of plugging in devices and finding solutions. It is all about forging a common mindset, a common doctrine, common processes and procedures – knowing each other through training side by side. Thus, the alignment of NATO education and training to meet international standards makes sense even if it will take years to complete.

Meanwhile, and to demonstrate its dedication to working together in the long term, NATO has increased the size, volume and nature of its exercises. To underline that “being ready” is not just another buzzword, a series of more than 40 exercises were organised throughout last autumn. This year, the high-visibility exercise Trident Juncture 2015 aims at gathering 25,000 soldiers in what will be one of the largest live exercises since the end of the Cold War. This is part of NATO’s effort to assure its members that collective defence means something. Unsurprisingly, these exercises benefit from extensive media coverage to target public opinion. Yet the goal will only be met if these exercises are both life-like and sufficiently challenging. The famous U.S. General George S. Patton is known for having said in 1944 that “a pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood”. Today this calls for continued investment in exercises and for their use as test-beds for new concepts to provide possible answers to current threats.

In a way, the summit in Wales pushed the NATO allies towards a more proactive attitude, calling them sharply to get their acts together and think of some tangible results. Indeed, there is tension between the unavoidable protraction in design detail and the political necessity of quickly implementing something new. If NATO wants a true response force, it will have to jump over hurdles and doing so would not only prevent the establishment of the VJTF, but also its use. Let us consider the readiness issue; to be effective and deployable at short notice requires a rotation of high-readiness certified units made available by the nations, but only a small number of member states can currently provide such units. What authority will be given to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)? If everyone agrees that effective Command and Control is needed, it might not be illogical to have SACEUR take responsibility for the training, certification and deployment of the VJTF. However, this is likely to create political fears that national prerogatives and sovereignty could be endangered. Ensuring a common understanding of what authority SACEUR might be granted, such as an extended authority to train the VJTF, could reassure sceptics that any decision to employ the VJTF would remain either national or with the North Atlantic Council.

Finally, what really must be understood is that high-readiness is expensive. The VJTF will be costly and require copious funding to train, exercise and possibly commit units. One cannot pretend that driving a sports car whilst avoiding maintenance costs, buying only third-hand spare parts and recycling cooking oil is feasible. Credibility has a cost and this is also why the pledge made by the NATO heads of government to reverse the trend of declining defence budgets by increasing national military spending to 2% of gross domestic product is vital.

To go from slogan to reality is to recognise that NATO has not just to know how to change, but also how to pay for it. But a lack of resources should not mean a lack of ambition. It is time to think imaginatively and seize every opportunity to act.


This article expresses the author’s opinion and doesn’t reflect neither the opinion of the NATO Defence College or of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

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