The United States is not alone in being confronted by a “perfect storm” in defense caused by the combination of tightening budgets, the transition out of a wartime posture, a changing threat environment, a broadening spectrum of missions and the desire to access new and potentially revolutionary technologies. NATO has been struggling with this exact set of problems for years while at the same time altering its processes and procedures, adding members and trying to rationalize its defense industrial base. The Alliance has undertaken some significant policy reforms such as its Smart Defense and Connected Forces Initiatives as well as making targeted investments in such areas as Airborne Ground Surveillance. Individual member countries, Great Britain and France most notably, also have undertaken sweeping reforms to their defense establishments.
NATO has had the advantage vis-a-vis the United States of being able to “field test” its evolving force structure, command and control systems and decision making structures. The Libyan operation demonstrated that a subset of NATO members could successfully conduct a significant expeditionary operation. Libya demonstrated how far the Alliance had come since the end of the Cold War as well as how far it has yet to go. Of approximately 7,300 strike sorties, 84 percent were conducted by non-U.S. aircraft; French planes alone conducted a third of this total. More or less alone, these countries had sufficient strike assets to do the job. At the same time, the Libya operation demonstrated weaknesses in such critical enabling capabilities as aerial refueling, ISR, suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic warfare, combat search and rescue, targeting, air operations planning and stockpiles of precision munitions. More recently, France required support by the U.S. Air Force to move land forces, identify targets and refuel fighters in its successful effort to counter the advance of Islamic extremists in Mali. Some of these insufficiencies will be remedied by planned acquisitions of aerial refueling tankers, large transport aircraft, Global Hawk drones and additional munitions. Others have yet to be addressed.
NATO, like the U.S. will soon have to do, is struggling to transition from a deployed Alliance focused on conducting significant counterinsurgency operations, to a responsive Alliance prepared to react to any number of demanding and unpredictable contingencies. It must make this transition while member nations continue to downsize its militaries. At the same time, it must make sure that residual forces will be effective, responsive, flexible and scalable. The danger is that as individual member nations exercise their sovereign right to choose which forces to cut, which to keep and where to place scarce investment dollars, critical enabling or integrating capabilities will be lost.
The current NATO planning process is trying to relate requirements to available forces. Unfortunately, it is overly focused on quantitative measures of capability to meet minimum requirements. Alliance-wide force targets are established for major and smaller-scale joint operations and then apportioned across all 28 members. This is a largely static approach to defining the Alliance’s actual ability to perform those operations. Much less attention is focused on enablers and, in particular, on supporting activities such as sustainment, logistics, communications and training. NATO acknowledged the importance of these factors when it announced the Connected Forces Initiative which focuses on those activities such as exercises intended to ensure that member states’ militaries can actually operate together. If NATO operations are going to be in response to unpredictable events and based on coalitions of the willing, then a lot of exercises and training are needed. NATO headquarters recently announced that it would conduct the first major live combined arms exercise in more than ten years. The classic reinforcement exercises that Cold War NATO used to do annually have not been conducted in decades.
The focus of NATO’s planning process needs to expand so as to address not only the issue of capabilities, that is quantities of forces, but also capacity, that is the quality of forces. The latter is as much or more a matter of the availability of critical enablers and sufficient training, connectivity, exercises, shared experiences and common procedures as on the number of tanks, planes and ships. The NATO planning process needs to be based on an ongoing assessment of the quantitative and qualitative state of the organization’s military forces and its ability to respond swiftly, flexibly and scalably to multiple contingencies.
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