Article Published in the Defense Daily Network
In April, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will mark the fiftieth anniversary of its founding and, like many 50 year-olds, it is starting to show signs of a mid-life crisis. NATO was established in April 1949 to counter the growing threat of Soviet aggression in Europe. But gone are the days when NATO’s mission was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the United States in, and Germany down,” as Lord Ismay said.
NATO now focuses mostly on brush-fire conflicts like Kosovo and whether or not to support U.S. military action against Iraq rather than on keeping the Russian bear at bay. As a result, some policymakers and defense planners on both sides of the Atlantic are beginning to question whether NATO should continue in its present form or devolve into a collection of loosely associated military forces. Such talk could result in the demise of NATO “not with a bang, but with a whimper.”
Nothing lasts forever, but the history of Europe in this century suggests that retention of some sort of trans-Atlantic security system is definitely desirable, and NATO has the twin advantages of familiarity and success. There certainly is no obvious reason to rush the alliance’s undoing. In the absence of a big, urgent threat to focus our attention, though, NATO may gradually lose both the operational capabilities and the political support necessary to sustain a real alliance. That is why even relatively obscure administrative and acquisition decisions must be closely monitored to assure their outcomes are consistent with a healthy alliance.
One such decision is imminent. During the coming months, Britain’s Labor government will help shape the fate of NATO, not through any grand shift in policy but by deciding what kind of airborne ground-surveillance radar system to acquire. How could such an isolated decision lead to NATO’s undoing? Because the wrong decision would prevent the British military of the future from sharing critical information about enemy movements with its allies in a timely manner. If NATO soldiers begin experiencing trouble effectively fighting together, then the alliance’s practical utility in future coalition warfare would become doubtful.
Ground-surveillance radars are remarkable systems, because they provide the same transparency in tracking the movement of surface vehicles (like tanks and missile launchers) that AWACS affords in tracking aircraft. The European members of NATO made procurement of a common ground-surveillance system the alliance’s highest priority. Several of the biggest nations are developing such systems, but they are based on dissimilar designs and operating concepts.
The U.S. Air Force already has a long-standing airborne ground surveillance system called the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, or Joint STARS. The service had planned to buy 19 Joint STARS aircraft, but the Clinton Administration cut production back to 13 in the expectation that European allies would buy half a dozen of the planes. They didn’t, leaving a force one-third smaller than the stated military requirement.
The Joint STARS system is remarkably capable. A single aircraft can track all the commuter traffic in a major metropolitan area or the maneuvers of several mechanized divisions. And once planned technology insertions are carried out, Joint STARS will actually be able to sort out and classify the types of ground vehicles it is tracking, such as whether they are tanks, trucks, or missile launchers. The system is designed to quickly disseminate such information to all elements of a friendly military force.
This is the kind of ground-surveillance capability America’s European allies need, and may one day get. But if they all pursue different national solutions that can’t communicate quickly and effectively with each other, the basic premise of information-age coalition warfare will be compromised. That premise is that America and its allies can act in concert on future battlefields because they share compatible and roughly equivalent capabilities.
The future of NATO lies in Britain’s answer to the following question: whether to join the Pentagon in efforts to develop a next-generation ground-surveillance radar, or buy a surveillance system that is incompatible with America’s future Joint STARS fleet. Joining the U.S. effort is the only way Britain has to ensure interoperability between the two nations, and Britain’s lead on this issue will likely influence how the other European NATO allies will resolve their ground-surveillance needs.
The British government must fully appreciate the long-term implications of its forthcoming decision. The wrong choice will segregate the European militaries from, and make them second-class citizens to, the digitally-driven American military. By the same token, the Clinton Administration needs to recognize that its chronic vacillation on trans-Atlantic arms cooperation has not exactly inspired confidence in London and other European capitals about joint weapons development efforts.
Considering the closeness of the U.S.-U.K. relationship, the upcoming airborne ground surveillance decision is a symbolic marker of the alliance’s long-term health. After all, if the Americans and the Brits cannot make the right choice for the future, how likely is it the French or the Italians will?
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