At the 2014 NATO Summit and as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the leaders of the Alliance agreed on a Readiness Action Plan (RAP) to improve NATO’s ability to deal with immediate security threats. The RAP includes a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) of 3,000 – 5,000 troops that can be deployed within 2-7 days. Considering the volatile nature of the current security environment, NATO’s new plan is a timely initiative. However, the RAP leaves open a question about the decision-making mechanism that threatens to undermine its overall efficacy: who authorizes the VJTF to deploy and engage?
In other words, the RAP will enable the Alliance, at the operational level, to rapidly deploy troops in crisis situations, but it lacks the political level decision-making mechanism needed to rapidly initiate the process. Based on current rules and regulations, this decision still rests with the North Atlantic Council (NAC).
The NAC is the primary decision-making body of NATO, where high-level representatives of 28 member states hold regular consultations. The NAC holds emergency meetings on occasion, including consultations under Article 4 of the NATO treaty whenever “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.” Reaching a decision in the NAC is a lengthy process, since every decision needs a unanimous consensus of all member states. Subjecting NATO’s high readiness units to the political lethargy of the NAC’s unwieldy 28-member consensus model undermines its ability to deter incursions in the first place and respond rapidly when they do occur.
One could argue that tying the VJTF to the NAC may actually create a greater political advantage for aggressors, such as Russia, who deftly calculate their actions to intentionally create discord and paralysis within the NAC. For adversaries planning to use such hybrid strategies, the insertion of one more decision-point requiring NAC debate increases the time between when their incursion takes place and the eventual response, allowing more latitude for aggressors to consolidate gains while NATO debates the appropriate course of action. This encourages further aggression.
NATO is aware of this challenge. At the last Defense Ministerial, members collectively recommended that special powers be granted to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) to streamline the decision making process by readying the VJTF without NAC approval. While a step in the right direction, this does not eliminate the proverbial “chokepoint” of requiring complete agreement at the NAC for the decision to actually deploy the VJTF.
To resolve this problem, NATO members should agree on a mechanism that respects the overall authority of the NAC, while delegating the decision to deploy at least part of the VJTF to an “Emergency Council” (EC). The EC should consist of three parties – a representative of the VJTF lead country (these rotate every year), the NATO Secretary General, and NATO military commander, SACEUR. The EC would greatly streamline NATO’s decision making process during times of crisis, so VJTF troops can actually be deployed within hours, instead of days.
Considering the magnitude of this responsibility, the EC would need detailed procedural guidelines. The NAC would retain overall control by reviewing the decision of the EC and ultimately deciding if deployment should be recalled. The NAC would also decide the duration of the VJTF’s deployment. The NAC would review the EC decision to deploy as soon as possible after it was made.
If we compare the EC to the internal decision-making process of a country, in some NATO members the head of state can deploy troops and initiate a war for limited periods of time. However, long-term military engagements often also require the approval of legislative institutions. The reasoning behind granting such authority to one person is to ensure the state responds to national security threats as quickly as possible.
A similar precedent also exists in NATO itself. On January 30, 1999, amid a rapidly deteriorating crisis in Kosovo, the NAC empowered Secretary General Javier Solana to authorize airstrikes against targets in Yugoslavian territory at his own discretion if he deemed them necessary to halt the crisis, without the need to further consult the NAC. In March, further authority was granted for the Secretary General to authorize a broader range of air operations in Yugoslavia . These decisions by the NAC were explicitly taken to “contribute to creating the conditions for a rapid and successful negotiation on an interim political settlement.” Such a precedent establishes the feasibility of the NAC granting limited deployment decision-making authority to individual alliance leaders specifically to allow for rapid military reaction in time-sensitive situations, whether to expedite a political agreement, halt the ongoing military actions of an opponent, or deter future aggression.
In a similar fashion, the EC would allow NATO to become more united and agile in response to contemporary time-sensitive threats. We live at a time when various non-state actors, self-proclaimed states, terrorist organizations, and authoritarian regimes demonstrate undeterred aggression and are ready to exploit any vulnerability to achieve their ambitions. As Russian hybrid tactics demonstrate, this includes vulnerabilities in NATO’s political decision-making structure.
Today, NATO remains the largest military alliance in history. However, it’s not only sheer size that matters, but also the agility and speed of forces to respond to rapid changes in the security dynamic. Given the volatile nature of the security environment in Europe, even a one-day delay could come at a high cost. For this reason, NATO should consider developing an Emergency Council that can trigger a defensive deployment when a threat requires an immediate response.
Daniel Bennett is Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership Program. Huseyn Panahov is an independent researcher and a member of the editorial board of the Public Policy Institute of Azerbaijan.