NATO Faces Serious Shortcomings in Command Revamp

Hawk missile system fired during Saber Guardian exercise in Romania, July 19, 2017Since the end of June, a report marked “NATO SECRET” has been circulating in headquarters in Brussels that unsparingly lists the alliance’s weaknesses. Under the innocuous title “Progress Report on the Alliance’s Strengthened Deterrence and Defense Posture,” the authors arrive at the shocking conclusion that “NATO’s ability to logistically support rapid reinforcement in the much-expanded territory covering SACEUR’s (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) area of operation has been atrophied since the end of the Cold War….”

There are shortages of almost everything: things like low-loaders for tanks, train cars for heavy equipment and modern bridges that can bear the weight of a 64-ton giant like the Leopard 2 battle tank. What good are the most expensive weapons systems when they can’t be transported to where they are needed most? “The overall risk to rapid reinforcement is substantial,” the report reads.

Not even the alliance’s rapid-response unit can be relied upon. “The current status of enablement of SACEUR’s AOR does not give sufficient confidence that even the NATO Response Force is able to respond rapidly and be sustained, as required.”

The secret report from Brussels paints a picture of an alliance that wouldn’t be in a position to defend against an attack from Russia. It would be unable to position its troops quickly enough, it lacks sufficient officers on staff and supplies from across the Atlantic are insufficient….

Defense ministers from the 29 NATO member states assigned the task of reforming the alliance’s command structures back in February. In the future, the alliance must be able to carry out several operations concurrently at the maximum “level of ambition,” they said at the time.

Hitherto existing NATO command structures is “at best, only partially fit for purpose and, while it has not been tested, would quickly fail if confronted with the full NATO Level of Ambition,” the secret NATO paper notes. This “level of ambition” is designed as “MJO+.” In other words, NATO is preparing for a possible war with Russia.

NATO military leaders have long known that the alliance’s command structures are no longer up to the task of a major conflict with Russia. A week ago Friday, they presented the NATO Military Committee with their suggestions for augmenting the officer staff. Now, all member states have the opportunity to comment on the plans and in early November, defense ministers will likely approve it.

We recognize the need to adapt and modernize the alliance and its command structure,” says Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide. “Norway is committed to ensuring that NATO’s command structure remains relevant and robust.” Her Danish counterpart Claus Hjort Frederiksen says: “Russia has broken international law,” making it necessary for the alliance to review its structures. “NATO is the strongest defensive alliance in the world because for the last 70 years, it has constantly adapted to new challenges….”

The provision of supplies must likewise be reorganized, a need that has led to a proposal to establish two new command posts with a total staff of 2,000. A new maritime command in the U.S., modeled after the Supreme Allied Command in the Cold War, is to organize the safe passage of soldiers and materiel to Europe. The sea route, many high-ranking NATO officers believe, could prove to be the alliance’s Achilles heel in a worst-case scenario. In classified meetings focused on command reform, analysts have warned that Russian submarines are present in the Atlantic, though they go largely undetected. Attacks on NATO troop convoys could hardly be defended against as things currently stand.

But the distribution of supplies in Europe is also problematic, a concern that an additional command is to address. Its task would be that of planning and safeguarding logistics between Central Europe and NATO member states to the east. The hope is to ensure mobility and to better protect areas west of the alliance’s outer border. While the concept may sound rather technical, it is actually nothing less than the rebirth of the mobilization concept adhered to during the Cold War.

Poland has demonstrated great interest in leading this “Rear Area Operation Command.” Warsaw has been insisting that as many NATO units as possible be permanently stationed in Poland. The Polish government believes that doing so would be an effective means of deterring the Russians.

But the Americans and other allies favor a different location: Germany’s geographic placement make it an ideal candidate. The command, after all, would be a kind of distribution center for troops that land in Bremerhaven or elsewhere in Central Europe. In early October, high-ranking military representatives from the U.S. informally asked their German counterparts if the Bundeswehr, as Germany’s military is known, would be interested in applying to host the new facility. In a Thursday evening telephone conversation between German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her American counterpart James Mattis, their first since the German elections in late September, the new command structure was likewise on the agenda.

For Berlin, leading the new command is an attractive prospect. It would mean an important task for Germany, which has repeatedly been pushed by other alliance members to take on a more significant role. Domestically, the project would likely also be unproblematic, even if the Green Party becomes part of the next government. The plan, after all, doesn’t call for Germany to send troops into battle. It merely envisions the country supplying staff personnel, the kind of task that German political leaders enjoy taking on the most.

Image: Hawk missile system fired during Saber Guardian exercise in Romania, July 19, 2017 (photo: Pfc. Nicholas Vidro/US Army)