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Rethinking NATO’s force transformation

Anthony H. Cordesman analyses the rationale behind force transformation on both sides of the Atlantic and the results to date.

Air power: Attack helicopters have proved easy to adapt to a wide range of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions (© SHAPE)

Ever since the first Gulf War, the United States has sought to transform NATO's military forces into high-technology conventional forces with as many interoperable elements as possible. At the same time, NATO has sought to develop additional out-of-area and power-projection capabilities - many again modelled on US capabilities. The NATO Response Force is the symbol of such intention. More broadly, both efforts have reflected the feeling that NATO must find a new, post-Cold War rationale based on new missions and new capabilities to match.

NATO has made some progress along these lines, but much of it is more cosmetic than real. Institution building is not force transformation. Ministers may agree to force modernisation priorities and to creating power-projection capabilities, but most country defence plans and budgets reflect slow progress, a continuing lack of interoperability, and the inability to move and sustain more than a small fraction of national forces much beyond national boundaries. NATO Europe is spending more than US$220 billion on military forces, and has some 2.2 million active military and 2.6 million reservists. Virtually all defence analysts agree, however, that most of its procurement efforts are scarcely properly coordinated and interoperable and are not coming close to providing US levels of technology and war-fighting capability. More generally, only a tiny fraction of NATO's total manpower is deployable outside Alliance territory, and much of it is only really usable if Europe goes to war with itself.

At the same time, a de facto competition has emerged between the European Union and NATO over who should plan and control Europe's defence capabilities, and particularly its rapid-reaction and power-projection capabilities. Various arrangements have papered over these differences, but the tensions in NATO created by the Iraq War have made the situation worse. French and US tensions run deep, in spite of President George W. Bush's recent fence-mending visit to Europe, and figures as senior as German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have said that the NATO Alliance is "no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies". The reality seems to be that NATO is now an alliance where member states will form ad hoc coalitions in reaction to given crises and contingencies far more often than they act in unison.

Before one starts mourning the death of NATO, or seeing its force-transformation efforts as a failure, however, it is necessary to consider several factors. First, it is not a bad thing - or an abdication of Europe's security needs - if European integration and stability is Europe's primary focus. Century after century of past conflict is a lesson in just how important it is that Europe completes this process of change. Two world wars have shown that it is also as vital to the strategic interest of Canada and the United States as to Europe. NATO does not need a new unifying mission outside Europe to replace the Cold War; it needs to remember that the purpose of a transatlantic alliance is transatlantic security, and this is an area where the West is having outstanding success.

Second, there is nothing all that new about the fact the United States focuses on security missions outside of Europe, or the fact that transatlantic cooperation is based on à la carte force mixes and coalitions of the willing, rather than reliance on formal arrangements with NATO. NATO has shown its relevance in Afghanistan and the Balkans, but virtually all of the out-of-area operations that have involved both American and European forces over the past half-century have been ad hoc mixes of forces from the United States and a few European states. Moreover, a study carried out after the Gulf War by the Center for Naval Analysis found that the United States had used power-projection forces outside the NATO area more than 240 times between the founding of NATO and the end of the Cold War, and the list of contingencies involved was one where more than three-quarters of the US actions did not involve any European role.

A NATO in which Europe focuses on Europe, and the United States focuses on the rest of the world with contingency-driven support from individual European states may in fact be the only way in which the West can act in most out-of-area contingencies. NATO does not create common interests and perceptions. In many cases, Alliance-wide consensus is a recipe for paralysis, and Alliance-wide force transformation of any kind will never happen at more than token levels because many - if not most - European states have no clear motive to become involved and pay the cost.

The fact that NATO is most useful as a common security forum that ensures suitable dialogue and cooperation where cooperation is seen as both necessary and affordable is still success by any rational standard. The "specialisation" of Europe and the United States also reflects the reality that two of the most important security priorities for the United States are outside of Europe: the security of Korea and stability in the Taiwan Straits. Both are military arenas where Europe can at most play a token role. Even in the Gulf and Central Asia, the United Kingdom is now the only European power with any real-world prospect of deploying and sustaining serious out-of-area deployments.

Third, the mission priorities for force transformation are changing in any case. Even the "rich" have budget problems, and cost containment is proving to be as serious an issue for the United States as for Europe, in spite of the massive US advantage in total military spending. The United States has found that it cannot afford many of the programmes it once thought it could include in its revolution in military affairs. The US Air Force has an unaffordable mix of combat aircraft procurements. The US Marine Corps is mortgaged to the Osprey, the programme to develop a more deployable aircraft, and faces serious cost constraints in many other areas of force modernisation. The US Army has had to let procurement of its new family of future combat-system vehicles slip by at least a decade. And the US Navy has what virtually every expert inside and outside the Navy accepts as a massive gap between its shipbuilding requirement and what it can actually afford.

The United States faces the same reality as every other member of NATO. Budgets cannot be shaped to meet the priorities of force transformation; force transformation must be shaped to fit budgets. In the absence of some peer conventional threat, the primary criteria for force transformation are now affordability.

Fourth, it is all too clear that mission requirements are changing as well. There are still important conventional threats in Asia and the Middle East, but the United States has recognised in the terms of reference for its new Quadrennial Defense Review that such "traditional threats" are only part of the problem. It is moving away from a focus on high-technology conventional forces to a "four-way matrix" in which irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic threats have equal priority. The lessons of 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq - and the prospect of proliferation by Iran and terrorist groups - have forced the United States to give equal priority to asymmetric warfare, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and homeland defence. They have also forced the United States to rethink the need for inter-agency cooperation, creating civil components that can perform national security tasks, and assigning the military roles in nation-building, peace-making, and stability operations.

Much criticism of NATO's force transformation may be based on wrong strategic assumptions and wrong priorities

Dealing with irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic threats are all mission areas where technology can play a critical role, but where new high-cost weapons platforms, extremely expensive space-based programmes, and very high performance munitions have far less priority. The Iraq War has demonstrated, for example, that the quality of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (IS&R) was of greater importance than having the most advanced aircraft. It showed that precision warfare could be fought largely with affordable laser and GPS-guided bombs.

It also demonstrated that existing major weapons platforms not only retain their value, but can also be adapted to new missions. Systems like the M-1A1 heavy tank and Bradley armoured fighting vehicle not only helped smash Iraq's conventional forces, but have since been critical in urban warfare and in dealing with insurgency. Attack helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles have proved easy to adapt to a wide range of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions. Existing combat aircraft can deal with the air threat in developing countries, and relatively simple precision strike weapons not only enable them to "stand off" from land-based air defences, but strike at urban terrorist and insurgent targets. Older systems like the A-10 Warthog have proved so useful that they may well get a major upgrading.

More importantly, the Afghan and Iraq conflicts have shown the importance of human skills, area expertise, civil-military units and a host of "human-centric" capabilities that depend on men and women in uniform, not things. Counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, peace-making and nation-building are all people and skill intensive, and areas where existing European forces can play a critical role in those contingencies where states perceive a common need. Special forces, military police, linguists, civil-military action teams, human intelligence experts, combat engineers, service support units, transport helicopters are just a few examples of the "transformational" skills that are needed, rather than high-technology systems.

Defence and response to terrorist attacks on national soil also involve new mixes of regular military, paramilitary, law-enforcement and emergency-response forces. Here, civilian capabilities can be at least as important as military ones, and the priority for increased resources requires "transformation" in a far broader sense of the term. Counter-terrorist experts, information-technology security experts, critical infrastructure protection, specialised medical facilities, and emergency responders like firefighters are as important to national security as regular military forces. These are areas where Europe often has the same or more capability than the United States, and where there may well be a much more common set of transatlantic priorities and needs than in out-of-area operations and power projection. If terrorism leads to the combination of irregular and catastrophic threats, as many experts fear, the need for transatlantic cooperation may become even greater. This could mean transforming and increasing many of NATO's nascent efforts in areas like counter-terrorism and giving it a much larger role in some aspects of homeland defence.

In short, much of the criticism of NATO's force transformation efforts may be based on the wrong strategic assumptions and the wrong priorities. Transatlantic differences will remain. Europe and the United States are not going to agree on a common set of NATO out-of-area missions in many - if not most - cases. European forces are not going to be transformed to have the level of conventional technology or power-projection capability as the United States or that their ministers have officially agreed to.

Such differences, however, are scarcely anything new, and the unifying and cohesive impact of the Cold War is largely a matter of bad history and false nostalgia. NATO experienced successive "transatlantic crises" over such issues as the phase-out of US Point Four military aid; the US refusal to support colonial out-of-area operations; efforts to convert to theatre nuclear options and then to restore conventional options; De Gaulle's partial withdrawal from the Alliance; the US role in Vietnam; the deployment of Pershing II and Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles; and planning for Mutually Balanced Force Reductions and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. NATO has never lived up to a single major force plan in any unified way, even one as vital in its day as a cohesive deployment of land-based air defences for the Central Region.

If one judges the Alliance by real world standards, it is scarcely a perfect success, but it is anything but a failure. Moreover, it has far more affordable opportunities for the kind of force transformation that member states really need than many military analysts who focus solely on traditional threats seem to realise. NATO should rethink many of its present force-transformation priorities from the ground up, but it remains a considerable success. As for the future, what NATO really needs is little less hubris from the United States, a little less bickering from Europe, and a lot more strategic realism about what NATO can and should do.

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