Today’s uncertain international security environment has prompted renewed attention on the roles which rapid reaction forces play in protecting core NATO security interests. Diego Ruiz Palmer outlines how these forces have developed.
Historically, NATO’s rapid reaction forces – starting with the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (AMF) established in 1960 and extending to today’s NATO Response Force (NRF) – have performed a spectrum of roles, covering deterrence, defence, and reassurance, complemented since the end of the Cold War with the increasingly important mission of crisis-response. While each of these roles has a specific political and operational purpose, which necessarily reflects the evolving real-world context in which they are performed, in many ways these roles overlap and mutually reinforce each other.
Enduring characteristics of NATO’s rapid reaction forces are: high readiness; responsiveness; deployability; and multinationality. These features make rapid reaction forces relevant to expeditionary operations at a strategic distance from Europe and North America, as well as to reinforcement inside of the North Atlantic Treaty area.
NATO’s first foray into rapid reaction can be traced back to proposals in 1960 by the then Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), General Lauris Norstad, to create a rapidly deployable mobile force for his command – Allied Command Europe (ACE) – to help deter intimidation, coercion or aggression, short of general war, against allied nations located on ACE’s northern and southern flanks. In peacetime, these nations hosted no or a very small allied military presence, and the concept of the AMF aimed at projecting a multinational deterrent capability on short notice.
National contributions to the AMF were organised into various pre-planned, multinational force packages optimised for deployment to the five AMF contingency areas – northern Norway; the Zealand islands of Denmark; northeast Italy; northern Greece and Greek and Turkish Thrace; and eastern Turkey. Planning and exercising were overseen by a small multinational staff located in the Federal Republic of Germany, but, in an actual contingency, command and control of the deployed AMF components would have been the responsibility of the local NATO land and air commanders, to ensure seamless integration between indigenous and reinforcing forces and present a single NATO “face”.
While the impetus behind the AMF’s creation in 1960 had been prompted by concerns related to deterrence in ACE’s northern and southern regions, the Berlin crisis of 1961 refocused NATO’s attention on defence of the Central Region. Following the construction of the Berlin Wall, the United States massively reinforced its forces stationed in Western Europe. The Herculean scale of this effort underscored the difficulties of rapid reinforcement inherent in the transatlantic lift of thousands of vehicles and led to the first instance of large-scale equipment pre-positioning, whereby the United States stored in southern Germany materiel for two divisions.
In 1963, the ability of the United States to rapidly reinforce the Central Region was tested during exercise Big Lift, which demonstrated the United States’ ever growing strategic airlift capacity, the wisdom of the concept of equipment pre-positioning, and the feasibility of rapid reinforcement on a grand scale.
In 1968, following the United States’ decision to relocate some US Army units from Europe to the continental United States, to help sustain the United States’ engagement in Southeast Asia, a third divisional set of equipment was stored in southern Germany. And from 1969 onwards, until the end of the Cold War, the United States exercised annually its ability to “REturn FORces to GERmany” during the REFORGER strategic mobility exercise.
In 1975, upon becoming SACEUR, General Alexander Haig decided to harmonise disparate NATO and national reinforcement plans into a single SACEUR Rapid Reinforcement Plan (RRP) and to embed the REFORGER exercises into a broader set of coordinated exercises, labelled Autumn Forge, designed to test and demonstrate NATO’s ability to reinforce and defend all three regions of ACE at once.
At the core of the RRP was an unprecedented United States’ commitment to NATO to have 10 division equivalents deployed and ready to defend West Germany within 10 days of a reinforcement decision (the so-called “10-in-10” concept), which required the storage of pre-positioned equipment for three additional divisions at sites in northern Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands.
Rapid reaction forces and reinforcement planning were the embodiment of the Alliance’s collective defence motto – “One for All, All for One”
An essential aim of the RRP – one that underpinned the political credibility and military effectiveness of NATO’s Cold War rapid reaction forces and reinforcement planning – was reassurance. There could be no stronger motivation for Allies located along Europe’s dividing line to commit to a strong forward defence, and to be prepared to resist intimidation, coercion or aggression, than the pledge of “off-shore” Allies, such as Canada, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States, through the RRP, to come to their assistance in times of crisis or war. In that way, rapid reaction forces and reinforcement planning were the embodiment of the Alliance’s collective defence motto – “One for All, All for One”.
Naturally, the end of the Cold War made all of these arrangements unnecessary. REFORGER exercises were terminated, most storage sites in Europe were closed-down and long-standing as well as more recent reinforcement commitments brought to an end (see Box 2). The RRP had achieved its purpose of deterrence and reassurance, but had now outlived the circumstances that had prompted its development.
With Europe evolving steadily towards a continent united, free and at peace, but with the growing spectre of unpredictable crises on NATO’s periphery escalating rapidly into conflicts, such as in the Balkans, the focus of rapid reaction shifted from reinforcement inside of, to crisis-response beyond, the North Atlantic Treaty area. For a while, consideration was given to expanding the size of the AMF force pool from a brigade to a division to make it more robust, but the AMF’s time had come and gone.
As early as 1991, the 1st British Corps, which had been the United Kingdom’s key contribution to the defence of West Germany for four decades, was transformed into the multinational Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). Rapid reaction now required a larger, more capable military force – for instance, in the context of demanding peace-enforcement operations such as IFOR in Bosnia-and-Herzegovina in 1995 and KFOR in Kosovo in 1999, where the ARRC was in both cases the initial entry force.
The AMF soldiered on until its disbandment in 2002. In NATO’s post-Cold War vocabulary, the AMF and the ARRC were categorised as Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) and Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), respectively.
During the 1990s, building upon the experience of the Gulf War, Allies transformed their forces for expeditionary operations at a strategic distance from Europe and North America on short notice. The ARRC’s model was emulated in the form of eight other multinational corps stationed across Europe, six of them like the ARRC at high readiness. Rapid reaction was no longer a specialised military capability; it had become the heart of NATO’s new Force Structure. Eventually, the IRF and RRF categories were abandoned in favour of new categories of High Readiness Forces (HRF) and Forces at Lower Readiness (FLR).
he NRF has provided the Alliance with a stand-by rapid reaction capability of some 20,000 men per rotation since 2003
Without a unifying employment concept, however, the HRF multinational corps (HRF(L)) and their sister HRF maritime formations (HRF(M)) were isolated “islands” of capability. The skill behind the concept of a multinational NATO Response Force, agreed upon by Heads of State and Government at NATO’s Prague Summit in 2002, was to link the HRFs through a common rotational scheme and the adoption of standardised tactics, techniques and procedures. In essence, the NRF provided the backbone of NATO’s rapid reaction capability and the HRFs provided the flesh. This was a “marriage made in heaven” between a growing expeditionary capability and an innovative employment concept.
Starting in 2003, the NRF has provided the Alliance with a stand-by rapid reaction capability of some 20,000 men per rotation, unlike anything NATO had had during the Cold War and unlike anything available today anywhere around the world, with the exception of the United States. Experience gained from successive rotations has demonstrated that the NRF concept is sound and that the transformational dynamic created by the establishment of the NRF is reaching deep and wide across the Alliance’s military establishments.
Furthermore, the successive deployment to Afghanistan between 2004 and 2007 of four HRF(L) headquarters, to provide the core headquarters of the UN-mandated, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), meant that these headquarters could put their NRF skills to good use in a demanding, real-world operation, while bringing the experience of deploying into a distant theatre into the NRF.
Admittedly, enduring shortfalls in key NRF capabilities, particularly operational enablers whose availability is critical for the deployment and employment of the NRF, as well as the persisting failure from rotation to rotation to fill them, have cast a shadow on the NRF and raised doubts on its operational effectiveness and long-term viability. Proposals were aired that could result in a lowering of the level of ambition for the NRF which the Alliance agreed upon its creation.
But while a genuine cause for concern, the persistence of these shortfalls does not call into question the soundness of the original NRF concept. Rather, it reflects the challenge that many Allies face in attempting to keep a segment of their best forces on stand-by while they are engaged in multiple expeditionary operations simultaneously.
Those shortfalls are also symptomatic of wider, systemic weaknesses in the way NATO generates forces for operations in the early 21st century, namely:
• The failure to leverage NATO’s proven defence planning process and the creation of the HRFs to make force generation more predictable, efficient and sustainable over time;
• An insufficient reliance on common funding to underwrite part of the costs of unforeseen, contingency deployments of the NRF, a practice which acts as a disincentive for Allies who otherwise would be prepared to contribute forces to NRF rotations but are concerned that they could face large, unbudgeted expenditures if these forces were actually deployed in a crisis situation;
• An excessively rigid segregation of Alliance forces into various categories, which prevents a more flexible use by NATO of all available capabilities and complicates the employment of the NRF; and
• An approach to estimating the capability of individual NRF rotations that has focused excessively on shortfalls versus a generic requirement, rather than on leveraging the actual contributions made available by member nations.
There is widespread recognition of the adverse impact of these shortcomings on the NRF’s credibility and usability, and setting work in train to address and resolve them will be a priority for the Alliance at the Strasbourg and Kehl Summit.
Admittedly, enduring shortfalls in key NRF capabilities...have cast a shadow on the NRF
Against the background of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan, the priority mission of the NRF and associated HRFs is crisis response, which could take place at a strategic distance from Europe and North America, to protect core Alliance security interests, help prevent crises from escalating into open warfare, or resolve a conflict and help build the peace. At the same time, in an enlarged Alliance, rapid reaction forces with enhanced deployability retain their relevance for deterrence, defence and reassurance.
In all cases, the Alliance’s distinct and unrivalled ability to plan and conduct multinational, expeditionary operations and meld together disparate capabilities into a coherent force will help ensure that the legacy of the AMF is sustained in the NRF into NATO’s seventh decade and beyond.
In an enlarged Alliance, rapid reaction forces with enhanced deployability retain their relevance for deterrence, defence and reassurance