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Edgar Buckley considers prospects for NATO's new capabilities initiative to be unveiled at the Prague Summit.

Capability shortfall: NATO's Strategic Commanders have drawn up a capability-shortfall list that the Allies will be invited to address specifically (© US DoD)

As NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson never tires of saying, the Alliance's credibility is based on its capabilities. Indeed, it is the fundamental importance of enhancing capabilities that has led NATO defence ministers to commission a new initiative in this area to be unveiled at the Prague Summit in November. Some may feel a sense of déjà vu, since the new initiative is being prepared by the same High-Level Steering Group, under the chairmanship of NATO Deputy Secretary General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, that has overseen implementation of the Alliance's 1999 Defence Capabilities Initiative (DCI). What, therefore, is new?

In one sense, not very much. The new initiative — its name is yet to be decided — will cover much of the same ground as the DCI, and its ultimate objective is identical: to deliver the urgently needed capability improvements that the Alliance needs to carry out its missions. In many ways, therefore, it should be seen as a continuation and reinforcement of the DCI rather than as its replacement. This is logical, because NATO is to a large degree building on the successful platform provided by the DCI. While the DCI's shortfalls are generally well-known, its achievements have also been considerable.

There are three main, significant differences between the new initiative and its predecessor, based on lessons learned in the DCI. First, the new initiative's focus will be much sharper than it was for the DCI. Second, it will be based on a different, much tougher form of national commitment. And third, it will include a much greater emphasis on multinational cooperation, including role specification, and mutual reinforcement with the European Union's drive to develop military capabilities.

Sharper focus

Unlike the DCI, which addressed 58 different capability issues, the new initiative will have a sharper focus. Alliance defence ministers decided at their regular six-monthly meeting in Brussels in June to concentrate on four key areas of fundamental importance to the efficient conduct of all NATO missions, including defence against terrorism. These areas are defending against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks; ensuring command, communication and information superiority; improving interoperability of deployed forces and key aspects of combat effectiveness; and ensuring rapid deployment and sustainment of forces.

Within these so-called Key Operational Capability Areas, the High-Level Steering Group is narrowing the field even more, with the help of the NATO Military Authorities, so as to ensure that scarce resources are directed to where they are most needed. A key part of this process is the production of a capability-shortfall list by the Strategic Commanders — the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic — which the Allies will be invited to address specifically. This is a detailed list of specific shortfalls covering many areas, including theatre missile defence, an Alliance ground surveillance system, precision-guided munitions and additional air-to-air refuelling capabilities.

Unlike the DCI, which addressed 58 different capability issues, the new initiative will have a sharp focus

In the DCI, the Allies made a collective pledge to pursue capability improvements. In the new initiative, each Ally is asked to commit itself individually to the specific capability improvements that it will contribute, either alone or with others. This means that the Alliance will know from the outset what is expected from each Ally and what aggregate improvements should be delivered. Moreover, confidence in the delivery of commitments will be greater than under the DCI because each head of state or government will have given a specific assurance that each commitment will be delivered, within a fixed timeframe. This new approach will also allow for an element of peer pressure. This is because each Ally's contribution will be relatively transparent so that questions can be asked why particular Allies are not able to do more in particular fields. Lord Robertson has written to all Alliance defence ministers setting out the minimum improvements he expects from the new initiative and indicating that further political steps may be necessary if these are not achieved.

Multinational cooperation

It has long been clear that many of the improved capabilities required by NATO — and by the European Union — cannot be acquired separately by all Allies. It would be uneconomic, for example, for the smaller Allies each to procure air-to-air refuelling capabilities. In recognition of the need for stronger multinational efforts in this direction — whether through shared procurement, equipment pooling, role sharing, role specialisation, or jointly owned and operated forces — the new initiative will include a robust phase during which Allies will be asked to commit themselves multinationally to meet outstanding shortfalls. There is an obvious similarity here to the efforts being made under the European Union Capability Action Plan (ECAP) to acquire additional capabilities to support the European Union in achieving its Headline Goal, that is to be able to deploy by 2003 a rapid reaction force of up to 60,000 troops within 60 days to execute humanitarian, crisis-management, peacekeeping and peace-making operations.

NATO defence ministers agreed at their June meeting that the Alliance must achieve mutual reinforcement and full transparency with the related activities of the ECAP. The precise modalities for this are yet to be agreed. The intention is to channel efforts in NATO as far as possible along paths that will reinforce, and be reinforced by, what is taking place in the European Union. Likewise, EU member states have been encouraged to provide information about commitments or intentions under ECAP, which are related to their intended commitments under the new NATO initiative.

Prospects for success

The success of the new initiative depends to some extent on the criteria by which success is measured. It is unrealistic, for example, to expect the new initiative rapidly to bring about all the capability improvements sought by the Alliance's Strategic Commanders. The Allies and the Secretary General do not expect to put right every shortfall overnight. Moreover, given that last year the United States spent 85 per cent more on defence than the other 18 Allies combined, yet in terms of manpower its forces are only half as large as the other Allies combined, it is also unrealistic to expect the initiative to correct the capability imbalance between the United States and the other Allies. But the new initiative should improve overall NATO capabilities and narrow the capabilities gap between the United States and the other Allies, provided Alliance governments — especially those in Europe — make good their pledges.

The new initiative is well-designed and timely. It focuses on the right areas and fits well with ongoing efforts in the European Union. It incorporates a good balance between national and multinational efforts. And it places responsibility for delivering improved capabilities clearly with the nations, where it belongs. The Secretary General and NATO's International Staffs can facilitate and monitor. The Secretary General can even cajole. But in the final analysis it is up to the Allied governments to decide whether to put their money where their communiqués have been. If they fail to do so, the rest of what is agreed at the Prague Summit will have an empty ring.

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