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NATO's evolving operations

On Kosovo's front line: As NATO moves beyond the
Euro-Atlantic area, it must retain sufficient capabilities to
deal with every eventuality in its longer-running

Adam Kobieracki examines the evolution of NATO's operations and considers prospects for future deployments.

There is probably no better illustration of how NATO has changed since the Prague Summit than the geographical extent of the Alliance's operations. Today, in addition to ongoing crisis-management operations in the former Yugoslavia – in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo – the Alliance is running major operations in the Mediterranean and in Afghanistan and is assisting the multinational division led by Poland provide security in a sector of the stabilisation force in Iraq.

While the current list of NATO-led operations is already impressive, the pressure to take on more is growing ever stronger. In many ways, the Alliance has become a victim of its own success, with the result that security analysts and even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan increasingly look to it to help solve many of the world's more intractable problems. There are, however, limits to the Alliance's capacity to deploy forces. Clear capability shortfalls have to be met if NATO is to become an effective crisis manager with a rapid reaction capability and global reach, provided all Allies accept such a perspective.

Capability shortfalls in the groundbreaking operation in Afghanistan – the first NATO-led mission beyond the Euro-Atlantic area – have been the focus of widespread media attention and a cause of some discomfort to the Alliance. The problem is not, however, a lack of equipment or manpower. The Allies possess the modest assets – medical facilities, transport aircraft and helicopters – that NATO's military authorities have requested for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in abundance. Moreover, the European Allies and Canada have between them some 1.5 million men and women under arms – 2 million if reserves are included – and only some 60,000 troops deployed on multinational missions, in sharp contrast to the forces available at any one time to the United States. The problem goes much deeper, to the very heart of what NATO is or should be about and to the way in which the Alliance mounts and runs operations.

Since the Prague Summit, NATO has invested considerable time and effort in military transformation. This includes reforming the Command Structure, building the NATO Response Force and overseeing implementation of the Prague Capabilities Commitment — reforms that are designed to give the Alliance greater expeditionary capabilities. Results to date have been encouraging. (For details and assessment of these developments, see Transforming NATO's military structures by General James L. Jones in the spring 2004 issue of NATO Review, A radically new Command Structure for NATO by Air Vice Marshal Andrew Vallance in the autumn 2003 issue and Marrying capabilities to commitments by John Colston in the current issue.

If, however, Allies want NATO to be able to "go where the threats are", the Alliance's political and operational decision-making processes will have to be brought more in line with each other. To achieve this, it will be necessary to apply the same transformational logic to the setting of force goals and to the defence-planning and force-generation processes as has been applied to military structures. While these processes have served the Alliance well over the years, they were designed during the Cold War and inevitably reflect the priorities of that era, not the needs of today.

Expanding operational commitments

To be sure, given the relatively small number of current operations, it is still possible to continue muddling through on the basis of ad hoc contributions and improvised solutions, much as the Alliance has been doing since launching its first peace-support mission, the Implementation Force, in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 1995. But any increase in demand will put existing mechanisms for generating and supporting forces on extended, far-away deployments under immense strain. Moreover, as things stand, the political decisions have already been taken that NATO should steadily expand its presence in Afghanistan; extend the scale and scope of its Mediterranean operations (as has already happened); and maintain its commitment to Kosovo – the largest of its missions – at current levels for the foreseeable future. In addition, many pundits and practitioners would like to see NATO play a greater role in Iraq and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East.

By taking on responsibility for the UN-mandated ISAF in August last year, NATO helped overcome many of the problems that the mission had faced since its creation in December 2001, in particular avoiding the need for the continual search, every six months, for a new lead nation. Moreover, by creating a permanent ISAF headquarters, the Alliance was able to add stability and increase continuity, as well as enabling smaller countries, which would not have the capacity required to act as lead nations, to play a stronger role within the operation. However, while ISAF's initial mandate was limited to providing security in and around Kabul, the need for an international security presence throughout Afghanistan was clearly increasing. Hence a new UN Security Council Resolution last October to expand ISAF's mandate to help the Afghan government to extend its authority beyond Kabul and provide a safe and secure environment for elections – both prerequisites for the spread of the rule of law and the reconstruction of the country.

To be an effective crisis manager with a global reach, NATO needs an internal operational transformation

Since December, therefore, NATO has indeed been steadily expanding its presence in Afghanistan by taking on responsibility for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). These are small teams, including both civilian and military personnel, which have demonstrated their effectiveness in areas where they have already been operating. The Alliance took command of a PRT in Konduz in the north of the country in January and, moving anti-clockwise to the west, south-west and finally south-east provinces of Afghanistan, is planning progressively to take responsibility for many more. In fact, four additional PRTs are to be established by the time of the Istanbul Summit. NATO is also discussing deployment of a quick reaction force in the run-up to the elections scheduled for September. (For more on NATO's involvement in Afghanistan, see The way forward in Afghanistan by Hikmet Cetin and Great expectations by Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier in this issue).

In addition to NATO's peace-support operations in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, the Alliance is currently running a maritime interdiction mission in the Mediterranean. NATO ships are patrolling the entire Mediterranean Sea, monitoring shipping and providing escorts to merchant ships through the Straits of Gibraltar to help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity. The operation, called Active Endeavour, has evolved out of NATO's immediate response to the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001. The Alliance initially deployed its Standing Naval Forces to the Eastern Mediterranean at the request of the United States, a day before the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, the US-led campaign to oust al Qaida and the Taliban from Afghanistan.

As the Alliance has refined its counter-terrorism role since that time, the operation's mandate has been regularly reviewed and its remit extended. In March 2003, Active Endeavour was expanded to include the provision of escorts through the Straits of Gibraltar to non-military ships from Alliance member states requesting them. And in March this year, the operation's geographic remit was expanded to include the whole of the Mediterranean. In this way, Allied ships are systematically carrying out preparatory route surveys in "choke" points as well as in important sea lanes and harbours throughout the Mediterranean. Moreover, because of the operation's success, some Allies would now like to see Active Endeavour extended beyond the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

While the missions in Afghanistan and in the Mediterranean are relatively new, NATO's operations in the former Yugoslavia are well-established. The upsurge of violence in Kosovo in March of this year was a reminder of how fragile the peace there remains, five years after the Alliance's deployment of the Kosovo Force (KFOR). As the Alliance becomes more involved in operations beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, it must ensure that it retains at all times sufficient capabilities to deal with every eventuality in the longer-running operations.

In response to the upsurge of violence, NATO rapidly deployed around 2,000 additional troops into Kosovo, some arriving literally within hours of the decision to dispatch them, to reinforce the forces on the ground. They were subsequently withdrawn as soon as the situation was brought under control but remain ready to return if and when needed. Whereas it was possible progressively to reduce the size of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) from 50,000 to about 17,500 troops between its deployment in June 1999 and December last year, further reductions are unlikely in the current climate. The security situation has stabilised but remains fragile and the political situation remains tense ahead of elections in October 2004 and likely discussions on the province's final status in the second half of 2005.

The planned hand-over of responsibility for the NATO-led operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the European Union will not give the Alliance much respite. The number of troops deployed in that mission has already been reduced to around 7,000 from an initial deployment of 60,000 in December 1995. And the pool of forces that the European Union is able to draw on for this mission is almost identical to that of NATO. Moreover, the strategic and operational reserves that the European Union would look to in the event of unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina are in essence the same as those that NATO would have to call on if the situation were to deteriorate again in Kosovo or elsewhere. The Alliance will, in any case, retain a military headquarters in Sarajevo to help oversee ongoing military reforms.

Transforming NATO's modus operandi

Many of the capability problems that NATO is currently facing could be alleviated relatively easily if Allies were to eliminate or at least reduce the frequent restrictions or caveats accompanying their contributions on the ways in which they may be used. These include limiting the availability of a particular asset to troops from a contributing nation and preventing troops from being involved in certain activities, such as crowd control. The effect of these restrictions is to complicate the operational commander's task and necessitate the deployment of additional forces and capabilities to compensate.

Ultimately, however, the defence-planning process must be reformed in such a way that it becomes a more useful tool in helping identify and generate the right forces and capabilities for Alliance operations. Here, the idea of establishing "usability" and "output" targets is currently being discussed. This implies that, from the outset, nations commit themselves to deploying a certain percentage of their forces on Alliance operations. This is a good starting point, but it is only that. More effective mechanisms are still required for turning capabilities into concrete operational commitments so that when NATO makes a political decision to take on a particular mission, it has the appropriate mix of forces and assets available and ready to be deployed. These may include greater reliance on standing forces and multinational formations kept on high-readiness for rapid deployment on a rotational basis, expanded role specialisation, and new, innovative funding arrangements to spread the increasing burden of an expanding array of operational engagements among the Allies.

At present, NATO has no footprint in Iraq and its assistance to Poland is limited to some planning support and providing a communications module. But as sovereignty is transferred from the Coalition authorities to an interim Iraqi administration on 30 June, the political climate should change. More-over, in the event of a UN Security Council Resolution providing the mandate for an international stabilisation force, the Allies will have to think hard about the role NATO might be able to play in it.

Whether or not NATO does eventually become directly involved in helping to stabilise Iraq, the likelihood is that demand for the kinds of operations that the Alliance is currently running will certainly not decrease and will probably increase in the coming years. This is due in part to the fact that, since its deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, NATO has consistently demonstrated that it is able to achieve remarkable results in the most difficult of circumstances. In the process, the Alliance has acquired enormous experience and developed unrivalled expertise in the planning and conduct of complex multinational operations. But if the Allies continue to expand NATO's operational role throughout the world, this can no longer be done on an ad hoc basis. To be an effective crisis manager with a global reach, NATO needs an internal operational transformation to adapt existing procedures and mechanisms to new requirements and ensure that Allies back political commitments with the necessary military capabilities.

Adam Kobieracki is Assistant Secretary General in NATO's new Operations Division.