January 1, 2003
Transforming NATO Forces: European Perspectives
By C. Richard Nelson and Jason S. Purcell
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Assessing the Nature and Scope of the Military GapThe evident and growing transatlantic military capabilities gap has given birth to a litany of U.S. recommendations as to how NATO’s European members might spend, procure and think differently in order to be better able to confront the challenges facing the Alliance. Many of these recommendations are sensible: the European Allies should spend their defense budgets as wisely as possible, while developing transformed rapid reaction units that can be deployed quickly to wherever needed and that will be able to operate effectively with their U.S. counterparts.
European governments certainly recognize the existence of the gap and they agree that measures must be taken in order to reduce it. However, these governments face a variety of concerns and constraints, which are both incompletely understood by many U.S. commentators and substantially varied among the different countries that comprise “NATO Europe”. If the two sides of the Atlantic are to cooperate effectively in upgrading Alliance capabilities, U.S. officials and experts must fully understand European positions and be willing to support initiatives designed by Europeans, for Europeans. The United States should also take steps to change those of its policies that reduce the ability of European governments, planners and industry leaders to pursue transformation fully. Most experts agree that the ability of NATO forces to work well together has eroded substantially since the end of the Cold War. Interoperability at every level – tactical, operational and strategic – is threatened.
The United States has also contributed to the problem of declining interoperability. For example, strong barriers have been erected by the U.S. government to protect military and dual-use technology. This discourages close transatlantic industrial cooperation. Furthermore, weapons, equipment and materiel are procured almost entirely from U.S. firms, reducing the potential benefits of broader competition. More importantly, the U.S. acquisition process has largely ignored requirements for NATO interoperability. This, in part, is due to the inefficient bureaucratic process of setting NATO standards, which often results in tailoring those standards to the technological pace of the slowest members. Nevertheless, common standards are needed to enable European forces to “plug in” and take advantage of rapidly changing technology.
Transformation is a complex technical, procedural and cultural process designed to enable integrated battlespace operations in a fast and decisive manner. Command and control, always a difficult task for a multinational alliance, is at the heart of the challenge. Furthermore, the rapid, regular turnover of personnel makes it imperative that operational capabilities be exercised regularly, otherwise they will atrophy quickly. Allied experience in urban warfare and expertise in chemical operations, for example, might make important contributions to U.S. and Allied doctrine and operations.
NATO will need to institutionalize the transformation process. Most likely this will involve transforming Allied Command Atlantic into a functional command responsible for future NATO forces. The extent to which this effort succeeds will be largely a function of the willingness of the North Atlantic Council to empower the new command.
There is no shortage of good ideas or of opportunities for cooperation. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that much of this potential cooperation would be industry-led, if the legal restrictions on cross-border technology flows were loosened and the corresponding safeguards designed to prevent advanced technology from falling into the hands of undesirable actors were tightened.
Despite its many potential mutual benefits, however, the prospects for overcoming the obstacles to closer U.S.-European cooperation are poor. The U.S. defense market remains almost entirely closed to European competitors. Strict U.S. export controls and intellectual property laws discourage European producers from incorporating U.S. technologies. And, most importantly, there is little evidence of the political will on either side of the Atlantic that would be needed to surmount these obstacles.
Europe is on a par with (or leading) the United States in several important areas of military technology. For example, leading work by Europeans can be found in radar, sonar, conventional submarines, mine warfare, and combat management systems. In fact, it may be argued that the central source of the transatlantic capabilities gap is not that the European defense industry lacks the technological capabilities of its U.S. counterparts, but that European governments have neither agreed to fund those capabilities nor organized to realize them.
RecommendationsOpen architecture standards for command and control systems is one of the most promising areas for more interoperable European and U.S. technologies and forces. Transatlantic coordination on export controls, intellectual property rights and protection of sensitive technologies would also further cooperation by fostering industry-led joint ventures. The specific development of new platforms for Alliance-wide use, as well as greater national attention to common NATO standards, are likewise promising approaches.
Existing EU-led initiatives (such as the European Rapid Reaction Force) should receive the broad support of the United States and of the other non-EU member countries of NATO with the understanding that what is good for European capabilities will necessarily be good for Alliance capabilities. Transformed and interoperable European Rapid Reaction Forces may also be available for NATO missions as well as for missions that NATO declines (or fails) to undertake.
Finally, the ability of the Alliance to triumph over its adversaries is not merely a function of technological interoperability or the success of Alliance-wide capabilities initiatives. It also requires vigorous joint training exercises to ensure that all Allies speak and understand a common operational language. Furthermore, not every NATO member (especially the newest Allies) will be able to make key contributions of capabilities in response to the challenges facing the Alliance. Nevertheless, it is important that political consultations be tailored so that all members remain enfranchised in the collective defense structure.