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Sisyphus and the NRF

Robert Bell explores the challenges of setting up the NATO Response Force.

Going live: NATO's NRF Exercise 2006 Steadfast Jaguar brought together for the first time the NRF's land, sea and air components (© SHAPE)

In October, NATO is expected - barring some last minute setback - to declare its cutting-edge NATO Response Force (NRF) to have attained full operational capability. To be sure, the declaration of full operational capability may well be accompanied by various caveats, including lagging deficiencies in critical logistics and support elements that create deployment risks higher than NATO's Military Authorities would prefer to see. These gaps are likely to be glossed over during the Alliance's summit in Riga in late November, as NATO showcases its achievement of a key transformation goal set by previous NATO leaders at its 2002 summit in Prague.

Indeed, there is much to be credited in NATO's three-year long struggle to make the NRF a reality and thereby further adapt the Alliance to the more expeditionary posture required in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 global security environment. In October 2004, initial operational capability was declared following Exercise Destined Glory in Sardinia. Late last year, the NRF proved its mettle in responding to the humanitarian catastrophe that resulted from the devastating earthquake in Pakistan in October. Naval and air elements of the NRF were also active in September 2005, responding to US relief needs after Hurricane Katrina. And following the conclusion in June 2006 of Exercise Steadfast Jaguar in the Cape Verde islands, which was the first exercise to bring together the NRF's land, sea and air components, NATO announced that it had passed its "last test."

Thanks mainly to sustained lobbying by the outgoing Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), General James Jones, the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements (CJSOR) checklist of required capabilities and units for NRF 7, the seventh six-month rotation of the force during the first half of 2007, is now largely committed by member states. So NATO leaders may be tempted at Riga to think the NRF's growing pains are over and that it has broken through to a steady state of certified availability at required capability levels. Such a view would be mistaken.

NATO leaders may be tempted at Riga to think the NATO Response Force's growing pains are over, but such a view would be mistaken

Like the mythological figure Sisyphus, forever condemned by the Greek gods to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down each time before he could reach the summit, NATO seems, under current NRF planning and funding arrangements, destined to a continuing series of high-drama trials twice each year. For each six-month NRF rotation, the CJSOR again threatens to come up short unless the NATO leadership makes heroic efforts to cajole last-minute commitments from reluctant member states. As former Secretary General Lord Robertson was fond of saying, constantly having to go around with a "begging bowl" is no way to run a railroad - or an Alliance.

Originally envisioned force

In approving its creation at Prague, NATO leaders envisioned the NRF as a technologically advanced, flexible, rapidly deployable, and interoperable joint force, including land, sea and air elements that could be rapidly tailored to individual missions, ready to move quickly over long distances and sustain itself wherever the North Atlantic Council (NAC) decided to send it. Supported by NATO collective assets like the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, the NRF was to be trained, equipped and certified to common standards set by the two Strategic Commanders, SACEUR and the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. It was also to serve as a "catalyst" for the implementation of the Prague Capabilities Commitment (PCC), which comprised over 400 firm political commitments by individual Allies to improve capabilities covering several specific fields, including air-to-ground surveillance, strategic airlift and sealift, air-to-air refueling, precision-guided munitions, combat support and combat service support , and suppression of enemy air defences. These kinds of capabilities are essential for the full range of Alliance missions, but especially for those at the high end of the conflict spectrum, where the European Allies' deficiencies had been so manifestly evident in the 1999 Kosovo air campaign.

By the time of the Alliance's next summit in Istanbul in June 2004, NATO had agreed upon greater specificity in the Prague blueprint: the NRF was to number some 24,000 troops at full operational capability, be able to start to deploy after five days' notice and sustain itself for operations lasting 30 days, or longer if re-supplied. At full operational capability, the NRF would consist of a brigade-sized land component with a forced-entry capability, a naval task force comprised of one carrier battle group, an amphibious task group and a surface action group, an air component capable of generating 200 sorties a day, and a special forces component. At Istanbul, NATO delineated the NRF's possible missions as

  • a stand-alone force for Article 5 collective defence or non-Article 5 crisis response operations, such as evacuations, disaster relief and consequence management, humanitarian or counterterrorism operations;
  • an initial entry force facilitating the arrival of larger follow-on forces; and
  • deterrence of crises by demonstrating NATO determination and solidarity
  • .

    Finally, Istanbul confirmed that the principle of rotation would apply to the NRF: after a six-month training programme, the force, if certified to the highest standards, especially with regard to capabilities and interoperability, would be put "on call" for six months. Once nations commit forces to a particular NRF rotation, they can only be withdrawn under exceptional circumstances. After each NRF rotation, these force components are replaced every six months by a fresh set of units that have completed the six-month training cycle. Unfortunately, the gap between agreeing the principle of rotation and actually finding the "fresh set of units" twice each year has proven immense.

    Filling the force

    Underscoring the priority he attaches to ensuring that the NRF is a success, General Jones carries in his pocket at all times two colour-coded five-by-seven-inch cards, one showing the status of confirmed CJSOR commitments for the upcoming rotation, the other showing the status of CJSOR commitments for the following rotation. As of mid-summer, most of the card for NRF 7, the seventh rotation of the force, was green, though there were a disturbing number of red blocks remaining in the areas of combat support, combat service support and communications and information systems. But the card for NRF 8, the eighth rotation of the force, was any SACEUR's nightmare: a majority of the blocks were red. Asked about these gaps at the beginning of July, General Jones replied bluntly that "the open question within the Alliance is whether the political will exists to sustain the NRF each year in the future." Given the emphasis placed by NATO nations on the NRF at Prague and every summit and ministerial meeting thereafter, one would have hoped that there would have been no question as to whether NATO member states are truly committed to its success. What accounts for this apparent disconnect?

    Rhetoric/implementation gaps

    First, it should be noted that the NRF is not, of course, the only capabilities transformation area within NATO for which maddening gaps arise between what would seem to be the clear intent of Allied leaders in setting specific goals, and the actions (and resource commitments) taken by their governments afterwards to realise these goals. Similar disconnects have bedeviled progress in realising the Prague goals for the PCC, particularly in the areas of air-to-ground surveillance, strategic airlift, aerial refueling, suppression of enemy air defences, and combat support and combat service support. In large measure, these failures to follow through are directly linked with the declining defence budgets of most NATO member states and the growing necessity within these nations to earmark increasing percentages of what is spent on defence on the operations and maintenance costs of NATO's many ongoing crisis response operations, including its expanding operations in Afghanistan.

    Competition for forces

    It is often remarked within NATO circles that "there is only one set of forces" deployed by each member state: there is not one army for NATO, one army for the European Union (EU) and a third for the United Nations (UN). The same unit that might be critically needed by NATO to complete a particular NRF rotation shortfall may also be needed by the Alliance for on-going crisis response operations or for other NATO reaction forces (such as its High Readiness Forces), by the EU for a battle group or the Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) commitment or for one of its many operational missions, by the UN for a mandated mission, or by the nation itself for a national deployment (such as the United Kingdom in the Falklands). To try to synchronise and de-conflict such overlaps, NATO has instituted a Global Force Generation Conference process at which nations' commitments are reviewed comprehensively out five to six years into the future. These conferences have clearly increased Allies' transparency with regard to the totality of demands being made upon their forces. However, they have not given NATO any new mechanisms for trying to pressure Allies into pledging forces.

    Some nations have tried to persuade NATO to agree to inaugurate NRF force goals, and thereby bring the NRF into the same Defence Planning Questionnaire/Defence Review Committee process by which the NATO International Staff and individual Allies can "lean" on a particular nation to do more or to specialise its expeditionary assets in certain key areas. The "NRF Force Goal" initiative has not, however, achieved consensus, and some nations remain adamantly opposed. As a result, force modernisation initiatives such as the PCC remain under the force planning community at NATO Headquarters, while the NRF remains under the operational community. Furthermore, as stated in the September 2005 study NATO Response Force: Facilitating Coalition Warfare Through Technology Transfer and Information Sharing by two scholars at the US National Defense University, Jeffrey P. Bialos, a senior Pentagon acquisition official in the Clinton administration, and Stuart L. Koehl: "SHAPE's planning, by necessity, reflects the notion that the NRF will be comprised of what forces actually exist rather than those SHAPE would like to see for the future" and that therefore "the NRF certification process is likely to follow armaments capability development and innovation rather than catalyze it."

    Role of US leadership

    When the US Department of Defence first proposed the NRF concept in the autumn of 2002, the initiative was seen both in terms of traditional "burdensharing" vis-à-vis the European Allies and as a unique response to the glaring gaps between the United States and its allies in high-intensity war-fighting capabilities exposed during Kosovo. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's conception was, first, that the Allies would band together to provide one robust brigade-equivalent joint force for high-readiness deployments (presumably alongside and this time interoperable with larger US force elements) and second, that as the Allies rotated units through the NRF, a broader upgrading of their overall war-fighting capabilities would take place. The Pentagon's emphasis was definitely upon Europe, and not the United States, taking the lead, although the latter was from the start clearly prepared to offer strategic enablers such as the Joint Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar System (JSTARS).

    This approach was not well received by the Allies, and NATO Headquarters itself routinely reminded the Pentagon that NATO works best when the United States leads. This spring, Secretary Rumsfeld changed course and to the credit of the US administration directed that the United States would indeed fulfill each and every CJSOR item for NRF 7 and 8 that had been requested from the United States by SACEUR. Some insiders at NATO Headquarters believe this "leadership by example" initiative has already shown results in terms of eliminating NRF 7 "showstoppers". Others, not yet persuaded of a lasting effect, concede that at least "the alibis have been removed."

    Theatre-level logistics

    Most observers agree that one of the most significant weak links in the NRF to date has been with its multinational Joint Logistics Support Group. This is due principally to the fact that most NATO Allies are simply too small to have theatre-level assets in the logistics field, and others much prefer to rely upon their own national logistics support elements for crisis response operations and expeditionary missions. The result too often has been the need to paste together disparate national elements, rather than achieve a more efficient and effective integrated logistics structure to support the NRF - a pattern that has also been evident in the area of communications and information systems.

    Disagreements over missions

    Despite the clarity of summit proclamations touting the NRF's availability for the "full range" of NATO missions, disagreements have persisted when it has come to specific cases. Not everyone agreed that it was an appropriate use of the NRF to deploy it to Afghanistan to bolster security during local elections there. Some nations have argued that the NRF should be restricted to "defence and security" deployments, and not be employed in the disaster relief or humanitarian operations mode. Recent suggestions that NATO might deploy to Lebanon as part of a UN-mandated effort to achieve a sustainable end of the Israeli-Hezbollah war also exposed fissures among the Allies with regard to perceptions as to where on the global stage NATO could and could not be expected to operate as an "unbiased" force for peace and stability. The lack of a clear consensus as to where the NRF should be dispatched has undoubtedly affected at least some nations' inclination to fully embrace the initiative.

    Funding arrangements

    Last but certainly not least, the NRF is facing turbulence due to sharp disagreements as to exactly which portions of an agreed deployment would be covered by NATO common funding, i.e. paid for from within the Military Budget and the NATO Security Investment Programme infrastructure budget, according to agreed national cost shares. In testimony last March before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, SACEUR warned that the "future viability" of the NRF "will depend on member nations' willingness to resource the necessary forces and commit to a structure of common Alliance funding." General Jones is strongly of the view that under the current "reverse lottery" system, in which the nations who are on-call for any particular NRF rotation will pay the lion's-share of NRF-related deployment costs if the force is actually dispatched on a mission, the "disincentives" to making CJSOR commitments are simply too great. "Until reformed," he warned the Senate Armed Services Committee, "NATO will be chasing that rabbit every time."

    Others at NATO Headquarters are not convinced that common funding is a panacea, and several member states are quite adamant that they are opposed to SACEUR's proposals for full funding of all NRF deployment costs, preferring no further weakening of NATO's long-standing "costs lie where they fall" principle in which nations pay their own way in Alliance operations. As a result, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has concentrated on a more limited compromise under which common funding would, for an interim (two-year) "trial" period, be extended to the strategic airlift portions of unanticipated NRF deployments (but only the airlift part). Means would also be devised (though not yet finalised) to gauge, first, whether that change was indeed removing disincentives for NRF pledges and, second, whether the promise of common funding for the no-notice airlift elements of the NRF was undercutting Allies' willingness to continue to make progress in acquiring longer-term solutions to NATO's glaring deficiencies in strategic airlift capacity. After last June's defence ministers' meeting, the NATO Spokesman stated that "we are closer, I believe, to at least some kind of an initial test agreement to see whether or not this does indeed facilitate the deployment of the NRF." Whether a consensus based on this approach can be forged by Riga remains to be seen.

    In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the renowned French writer Albert Camus argues that while Sisyphus' ceaseless toil epitomises the concept of the absurd, on those rare but periodic occasions when Sisyphus becomes conscious of his fate, the futility of his labours rises to the level of tragedy. At its Riga Summit, NATO will obviously focus its consciousness on the NRF. But if the Alliance does so without identifying solutions to the problems that threaten to undermine this critical transformation initiative, Camus would seem to be warning that the result would be not just absurd, but also tragic.

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