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Updated: 10-Apr-2002 NATO Review

WEB EDITION
No. 3 - June 1991
Vol. 39

p. 16-21

EUROPEAN SECURITY:
LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE GULF WAR

William H. Taft, IV
US Permanent Representative
on the North Atlantic Council

As the Alliance begins its 43rd year, there can be no more important task for all our nations than to maintain the common foundation we have built with such care. But we must also adapt our partnership to the dramatic changes which have presented us with new tasks. Adapting to the changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to make our former adversaries into partners is one part of the job. Developing a larger role for the European countries to play within the Atlantic Alliance as the European Community moves towards a political union and a common foreign and security policy is another. We need to do both at the same time, which is what the NATO strategy review is for.

A further challenge will be to ensure that we work harmoniously to meet new threats which can emerge beyond the borders of Europe and North America. This subject has at times been controversial within our Alliance. Commitments under Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington do not extend to so-called out-of-area problems as such. But it has become evident to all of us that Western interests can be affected by world-wide developments in an era of increasing interdependency. One important task for the future will be to proceed pragmatically to extend our cooperation as widely as possible.

I am not suggesting formal extension of NATO to other areas. Instead I would like to look at the question of European security from a particular angle - through the prism of the recent events in the Persian Gulf. What did the war tell us about our European security policies and structures?

Despite the fact that the war took place on NATO's periphery, it has firm and, I think, important implications for European security. There are several lessons I would like to draw - about NATO itself, and about the several developing European security institutions.

The Gulf war

Let me recall, briefly, the sequence of events in the Gulf crisis before drawing lessons for European security from them. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August, thus launching Iraq's second war of aggression in a decade. Within hours, governments around the world condemned the invasion. Economic sanctions were imposed, first by nations and then by the European Community (EC) and the UN. Within a week, the United States, Britain and a number of Arab nations had determined to deploy forces to the region to discourage further aggression by Iraq and enforce the economic sanctions. NATO ministers met on 10 August and gave strong political support to the national actions that had been announced. Significantly, they also agreed to make additional national military deployments and to assist and support such deployments by the United States. Finally, the ministers warned Iraq that the Alliance was committed to the territorial integrity of Turkey, which had so courageously joined those condemning the invasion of Kuwait and applying economic sanctions.

In the following five months, there was an enormous build-up of military forces in the region. Just under three-quarters of a million men and women were deployed by the coalition members. The United States contributed about 70 per cent of the total, and this deployment, which came from US as well as European bases, was supported by NATO's infrastructure. It could not have been done without the allies' support. The European allies also contributed about 10 per cent of the total forces in the region, with the British sending the largest portion of these.

In December, Iraq made statements threatening Turkey. The response of the Alliance was to deploy to Turkey the air component of the Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force composed of German, Belgian, and Italian aircraft; to deploy additional air defence missiles including the Dutch Patriots; and to reaffirm our commitment to our ally. Turkey was never attacked by Saddam's forces.

On 16 January, the coalition air offensive began. Forty-six days later, Kuwait was liberated. The training, equipment and morale of the coalition forces were decisive; their leaders had excellent intelligence, flexible planning, and clear command and control systems. The outcome was never in doubt, though the proportion of enemy to coalition casualties and the speed of the victory exceeded most expectations.

Lessons learned: NATO

These events suggest several lessons, among which I would suggest five about NATO itself.

First, NATO proved to be an invaluable forum for consultation and agreement for its member states on the situation as a whole.

Beginning on 2 August and lasting through the war, ambassadors, foreign ministers, defence ministers and hundreds of military and civilian officials shared assessments, options, intelligence and plans. These consultations fed into national and multinational responses which, in turn, supported the war effort. These meetings in NATO ensured that all allies - and not just the major powers - were able to participate actively in debate of the issues before us. I know of no other forum where such close political and military cooperation among all allies could be conducted so well. In fact, this is a clear case of the old saying: if NATO had not existed, we would have had to invent it.

The 15 members of NATO's Defence Planning Committee (DPC) in permanent session met regularly and took difficult decisions, such as the first operational deployment of the ACE Mobile Force (Air) to Turkey in January and several military alert and vigilance measures.

Continual and detailed military consultations at NATO led to the extraordinary bilateral and Alliance logistical and basing support provided to forces EN ROUTE to the Gulf. This included transportation, landing rights, refuelling, ground movements, port facilities, ammunition transfers among allies, air traffic control, repair parts, environmental clean-up expertise and medical support.

Without the military support from NATO allies in the Gulf theatre and the logistical support from NATO allies in the European theatre, the United States and the Gulf coalition could not have accomplished what they did. NATO's consultative machinery, designed to preserve European security, also worked in dealing with this 'out-of-area' crisis.

Second, despite the absence from the Gulf of the NATO military command, its influence was clearly felt. The military coalition that trained together in preparation for a massive war in Europe put its training to work in the Gulf.

Ground forces from the United States, Great Britain and France fought together under a unified command. Air forces from the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada and Italy fought effectively under a unified command. Naval forces from the United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain operated effectively under unified command, with the Western European Union (WEU) playing a coordinating role.

It was not by chance, however, that these armed forces worked so well together. Nor was this something that was or could have been put hastily together. Years of joint training, equipping, exercising and developing common standards and procedures in NATO in peacetime made possible the efficient and coordinated military operations in the Gulf.

Some are now arguing that the apparently ad hoc nature of the Gulf coalition is proof that formal military structures are not necessary to respond to security threats. We do not need to have permanent structures and procedures, they argue, because we can prepare them on the spot. And besides, we can always depend on the United States, with its well-integrated military command, if the going ever gets really tough. This type of thinking is most often found in certain circles in France, which of course does not participate formally in NATO's integrated military structure, but also elsewhere.

I do not know whether those who dismiss the continuing value of NATO's integrated military organization are familiar with the story of the three little pigs who lived in straw, wood and brick houses. If they are, it must be the version in which, after the wolf blows down the straw and wood houses, their owners escape to the brick house and are saved, instead of being eaten. Even from this gentler version, however, where everything works out well in the end, it takes a special sort of illogic to draw the moral that because the brick house was big and flexible enough to accommodate additional occupants, it also might as well have been made of straw.

The integrated military structure is the Alliance's brick house. We must build it in advance and keep it well maintained, if we hope to enjoy its political as well as its military benefits. An important lesson of the Gulf war is that even when NATO is not involved as such, the experience of working together is an essential element in our success in cooperating outside the NATO treaty area. The brick house - NATO's integrated structure - served us well in the Gulf and took in new occupants, because it was already there.

Third, NATO strategy for the defence of Europe has long been based on deterrence. Deterrence, we have found, is the product of two components: military capability and the will to use it if necessary against an aggressor. Military capability with no will to use it is not a deterrent, nor is strong will without capability.

Saddam was not deterred on 2 August; Kuwait may have had the will to resist but no capability. After both will and capability were demonstrated, by the coalition, however, Saddam was deterred from attacking into Saudi Arabia.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty and the deployment of the ACE Mobile Force (Air) reinforced the deterrence equation and Saddam never dared to attack Turkey. For Turkey, as for other members of this strong and totally unambiguous Alliance, NATO worked. Explicit alliances, as statements of political will backed by real military capabilities, can and do deter aggression. We should remember that.

But there is also a fourth lesson, which is essential to keep in mind along with the one about deterrence: while sometimes will and military capability do deter aggression, as in Turkey, sometimes, as in the case of Saddam's SCUD attacks on Israel, they do not. That is why you need defences, not just offences. In the case of Israel, far from being deterred by the prospect of retaliation, that was exactly what Saddam wanted - to bring Israel into the war in order to break the coalition. Defences - in this case Patriot missiles - were what was needed to protect Israel. We should all be looking for deterrence and defence as we draw the lessons from the war.

Yet a final lesson of the war for NATO relates to our weapons procurement programmes. We were right to focus on buying the most modern high-tech weapons for our forces, and we should continue to do this. These weapons proved their effectiveness against the enemy and saved our soldiers' lives. Given their cost, we must of course buy these weapons carefully; joint research, development and production programmes should be used to reduce costs by sharing them amongst allies.

Lessons learned: European institutions

The Gulf war also taught us a few more lessons about European security institutions.

First, politically: since last August, Europeans have been heard expressing discomfort with the mechanisms by which Europe reacted to the events in the Gulf. It is not surprising that the debate over European foreign and security policy has quickened, producing several more concrete proposals in both the intergovernmental conference on political union and the Western European Union.

Europe should indeed move toward a common foreign and security policy, as this would enable it to play a more effective role in maintaining global security. I stress this because a European common foreign and security policy is too often seen primarily as promoting Europe's position and solving Europe's internal problems. It is worth recalling that the European Community's history over the last forty years, even in the absence of the common foreign and security policy and the political union which it is now developing, is one of sustained security and of prosperity. It is not so much Europe which has been affected by its lack of a common foreign policy as the rest of the world. The rest of us need a stronger and more unified Europe to help solve the many world-wide problems facing us. There is no doubt that the United States would welcome the development of such a unified, responsible and outward-looking Europe in all fields of endeavour.

We have also learned some military lessons: for a variety of reasons, NATO, as an institution, did not play a direct role in the Gulf, only in the defence of Turkey and this is likely to be the case in any similar situation in the future. If NATO is not to be used outside of Europe, Europeans should develop the political and military capability to defend their out-of-area interests in some other way.

An integrated European force, interoperable with US and other NATO forces, could be a valuable element in future crises. The WEU is talking about organizing such a force. This could be a good thing but the WEU does not represent all of Europe. In fact, the major European security challenge in the Gulf crisis was to a European ally - Turkey - which is not part of either the WEU or the EC. In considering a future European contribution to Western security, it will be important to remember that Europe includes many countries not now members of these organizations. It is necessary not to exclude important allies from our security deliberations in the name of institutional development. The task of defence is too important for that to be allowed to happen.

As European nations pursue their own structures, one of the lessons learned in the Gulf should be kept in mind: the great military utility of unity of command, interoperable equipment, common training, common communications and common operating procedures. As the plans for a European force develop, due attention should be given to the mechanisms for ensuring the continuation of these commonalities. These arrangements should strengthen the integrity and effectiveness of the Atlantic Alliance, which depends on them also for its ability to provide for the security of Europe itself.

This could be the best way for Europe and the United States to coordinate military support in future contingencies out of the NATO area, as they have done now for four decades within it.

Conclusion

In summary, the Gulf war not only demonstrated the validity of NATO's approach to European security, it also taught us some lessons about the management of change as old threats are replaced by new challenges.

The war demonstrated that NATO:

  • serves as an invaluable forum for political consultation;
  • provides critical logistical support and common operational procedures; and
  • deters attack on member nations.
Among the new lessons we learned from the war were:
  • the desirability of streamlined decision-making among European states to respond to crises on the periphery of NATO's territory; and
  • the need for an integrated European force for deployment out-of-area, to operate as necessary alongside American forces. Such a force should regularly train and exercise with other NATO forces in preparation for all contingencies.
It is for Europeans, of course, to articulate and develop the institutions through which a European security identity will be manifest. In doing so, they will have our strong support - in so far as NATO remains the principal venue for consultation and the forum for decision-making on policies affecting the security and defence commitments of its members under the North Atlantic Treaty.

In this way, European security, indeed transatlantic and global security, can be ensured well into the 21st century.

This article is based on a speech given by Ambassador Taft in the Hague, 23 May 1991, at an International Conference on 'Parliamentary Democracy and International Security Policy' sponsored by the Dutch Atlantic Committee.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1991.