NATO: Connected Forces, Connected Minds?

NATO headquarters half-staff

NATO must contend with two competing and contending inner-realities: a schism in Alliance strategic culture and concept, driven by deepening divisions over the world view and the future of the Euro; and the austerity-driven need for shrinking armed forces to work ever more closely together in a world in which the balance of power is tipping against the West. It will not be an easy balance to strike.

Forever in search of said new balance NATO has launched the Connected Forces Initiative or CFI. However, like most things NATO whilst the idea is good real questions remain as to the extent the member nations will really grip the challenge. The bottom-line is this; the only way CFI can succeed is to be radical in both thought and act. In effect, CFI is seeking what I call ‘organic jointness’; forces that not only act as one, but think as one.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “organic” as “an organised structure within a cell”. Today that means an entirely new way of thinking about the relationship between the world, armed forces, technology, the societies they serves and. above all, ideas. The specific challenge concerns how small military ‘producers’ meet their security and defence obligations in a very large and unstable ‘market’ in which the defining feature is and will be friction and turbulence and the defining factor cost.

‘Connectivity’ is the key. Indeed, ‘connectivity’ must become NATO’s driving mantra because the force most connected will be the force most likely to strike a balance between effectiveness and efficiency. However, this in turn will require a complete change in mind-set amongst political and military leaders, particularly in Europe. European armed forces can no longer compete on mass and quantity and NATO can thus no longer simply flood the ‘market’. Rather, the Alliance needs to be able to make intelligent choices and identify critical points in the ‘market’ over which it can and must exert influence given challenges that will range from state failure to state conflict and all that lurks in between.

In Europe a defence planning Rubicon has been crossed and yet too many military leaders talk as though this is a temporary blip before their return to greatness. Indeed, given cuts to NATO Europe forces that is on average some 25% since 2008 European armed forces no longer have the size to ‘think’ as separate countries, let alone act as separate services. To be properly connected armed forces will need a radical, unified concept of how best to a) exploit the five dimensions of twenty-first military effect – air, land, sea, cyber and space; b) recognise that a new inner-relationship must be sought with the US; and c) inject some real meaning into the woeful non-relationship with the EU. That will require a NATO that can re-conceive of itself as a critical strategic node or hub at the core of a web of real strategic partnerships the world over with NATO Standards which promote effective ways of working acting as the Alliance’s core ‘product’. This will be no easy task for an Alliance that still remains too much of a self-licking lollipop.

The connectivity revolution must start within the Alliance. Critically, new thinking will be needed if the ‘corporate memory’ that has been built up so painfully over the past decade is to be properly exploited rather than shelved as lessons-learned and then lost. To that end NATO must far better, scientifically and systematically exploit exercising, training and education. Exercising is a key but woefully ill-exploited change agent. Too often the testing of concepts, experimentation and the taking of risk it implies is avoided in favour of of the formulaic and disconnected rehashing of the already known.

However, it is the connectedness of minds that will define CFI. Transformed defence education is pivotal to CFI. Indeed, for CFI to work there must be a much tighter relationship between the knowledge base, research, defence education and action based on an Alliance-wide defence education concept that both empowers the learner and ends the box-ticking culture that so bedevils defence academies. In other words, learning must also become outcomes-based, life-long and enduring based on Alliance-wide education standards.

Organic Jointness is thus at the heart of the Connected Forces Initiative built on the principle of connectivity. The realisation of such a goal will demand a radical commitment to force quality that goes way beyond the rehearsed rhetoric of past NATO initiatives. Things really are different now and unless the Alliance actively promotes the rigorous development of comparative advantage in thinking, concepts, technology and, above all, people it really will in time fade into irrelevance.  

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast. Photo Credit: AP Photo

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