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Apr 29, 2014 | 09:00 GMT

10 mins read

NATO: The Current State of Play

In part 2 of this series on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a NATO Defense ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 26, 2016.
(JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note:

This is the second installment in a three-part series on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

NATO weathered the Cold War significantly better than its Warsaw Pact rivals, but it did not escape unscathed. Without the anchor of the Soviet bloc, NATO was cut adrift from its strategic imperative, suffering diminished budgets and dwindling force levels. Despite this, NATO has conducted more operations since the fall of the Soviet Union than it did during the previous four decades of carefully orchestrated stalemate. A modern NATO has been forced to learn new lessons, forged in the crucible of intervention, global terrorism and numerous Balkan winters. The new, adaptive framework of NATO has enabled members to conserve resources and avoid the associated costs of large standing forces. However, without these large armies the alliance has lost some of its deterrence capability, forcing it to be a relatively slow reactor to world events.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 compelled NATO to re-evaluate its reason for being. The current alliance is a legacy of its Cold War framework, shaped by a changing geopolitical landscape and the search for strategic and economic justification. NATO would argue that it has become a more streamlined organization, increasingly flexible and responsive. 

When seen purely in terms of combat power, though, modern NATO is a diminished version of its former self.

The Sharp End of the Spear

As a military collective, NATO relies on its ability to react quickly and then bolster forces as required. On call at any given time is the NATO Response Force, or NRF, which is composed of two parts: the Immediate Response Force and the Response Forces Pool. The Immediate Response Force, or IRF, is a brigade-sized force (around 13,000 personnel overall) with air and sea components and troops trained in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear operations. Smaller units from various NATO members make up the force, which is under the command of one of the Joint NATO Regional Commands. The contributors to both the IRF and the assigned regional command change every year.

While the IRF can be called upon to deploy in five days or less, the Response Forces Pool provides supplementary manpower from a designated reserve contingent. These troops, committed on a voluntary contribution basis, can effectively double the overall size of the NRF. Non-NATO members, such as Sweden, Finland and Ukraine, also contribute to the NRF, and Georgia has said it will commit forces to the next rotation of the NRF in 2015, though its bill will be paid by the United States.  

In addition to its high-readiness formations, NATO — and in this case, the European Union — has near-immediate access to Eurocorps, a force of 60,000 personnel from designated units across the alliance. On permanent assignment to Eurocorps is the 6,000-strong Franco-German Brigade, a rapid response contingent that can deploy within five days. Officially, beyond these rapid reaction forces, all the national assets of an alliance member can be seconded into NATO's existing command structure, facilitated by a framework of permanently active divisional headquarters should the need arise. An additional 19 battalion-sized units could be co-opted from non-NATO European Union battle groups in extremis, but this would require direct authority from the European Union.

A centered on Europe and Eurasia showing collective defense blocs
The consensus view remains that a full-scale deployment of NATO is unlikely in the extreme. Instead, with the specter of the Soviet threat removed, the alliance has focused on a number of smaller-scale deployments to affirm its continued relevance. It took almost 50 years for NATO to stage its first military action (an intervention in Bosnia) in 1995. NATO missions since then have ranged from operations other than war — such as air and sea denial, peacekeeping, supporting relief efforts and anti-piracy — to joint offensive operations.

As well as being heavily involved in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, NATO unified under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty on Sept. 12, 2001. Article 5 is the principal of collective defense under which the alliance was founded, and it has been invoked only once in NATO's 65 years. Following a U.N. Security Council resolution in December 2001, the International Security and Assistance Force was formed. The ISAF mission in Afghanistan remains the largest operation NATO has been involved in. 

The Benefits of Collective Defense

The most functional part of the collective defense strategy is military interoperability: standardizing the way NATO members work and operate together. Armed forces are generally self-contained, with unique procedures, weapons, vehicle platforms and equipment. When NATO was created, it was envisaged as a true logistical network, enabling a shared command and control system with common doctrine and tactics, allowing almost any combination of national forces to come together to become a relatively functional fighting force. 

This collaborative foundation is the true strength of NATO and will be its enduring legacy.

This form of integrated or "smart" defense, as NATO calls it, has led to a coordinated effort to develop and acquire common equipment across the alliance. Although not unanimously accepted by all members, a shared development and acquisition cycle represents a significant scale of benefits as well as the opportunity for sharing research, development and production costs. Certain militaries have also been encouraged to develop specializations, building upon their inherent strengths in specific environments. In addition to common materiel, NATO's Connected Forces Initiative aims to further solidify the alliance through education, training and joint military exercises.

The Geography of NATO

The geographic expanse of the alliance has created natural partnerships and regional affiliations within NATO itself. Although beneficial in some cases, regionalization can potentially hinder the way NATO operates, creating divisions and warping the perception of threat.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania face the binary dilemma of having the most proximity to Russia and the weakest militaries. All three countries were keen to join NATO in 2004 and have since become major security consumers, drawing much support from the alliance. However, any sign of a weakening NATO concerns the Baltics, which would give serious consideration to any alternative (or parallel) security apparatus beyond the alliance. One of the ways this has materialized is the membership of all three Baltic states in the EU Nordic Battlegroup, which was formed in 2010. Latvia and Lithuania also contribute 350 personnel to the Polish-led Battlegroup I-2010.

The Visegrad Group of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic is less exposed and more militarily powerful than the Baltic states. Their largest threat remains a resurgent Russia. Although more capable in terms of defense, the Visegrad countries are middleweights by NATO standards. While they continue to be enthusiastic members of the alliance, they are concerned about the recent trajectory of NATO. This has made the Visegrad Four increasingly edgy, to the extent that the countries are willing to form their own military battle group. Currently this is envisioned as a European battle group that would be available to NATO while giving the Visegrad Group options outside of the alliance.

The Western European contributors to NATO have virtually formed a bloc of their own. With a comfortable buffer to insulate them from an aggressive Russia, heavyweight countries such as Germany, Britain and France have a different perception of the threat from the east. The strategic depth gained by NATO's eastern expansion lowers the need to maintain large standing armies. Territory can be traded for the time it takes to assemble sufficient combat power for a counteroffensive, a strategy that was not viable during the Cold War as Russian forces stationed in East Germany directly threatened Western Europe. 

This trade-off inherently creates tension with NATO's more eastern members, whose territory is directly threatened as Russia continues to reassert its military power. Countries like Romania, Poland and the Baltic states want a NATO that prevents potential invasions, not one that promises to be there after the fact. As major security providers with the relative safety of depth, the Western European members are also more inclined to pursue self-serving agendas within the alliance.

As the single largest contributor to NATO, both in finances and potential combat power, the super-heavyweight United States has a significant role to play. Separation from the rest of Europe and the east by the Atlantic Ocean places the United States in the least physical danger. However, the additional burden of heavily bankrolling two long wars combined with a trend toward fiscal constraint in defense spending have driven the United States to lean heavily on NATO to complement its foreign policy imperatives. The recent events in Ukraine have added an acute sense of risk where Moscow is concerned and ensures Washington's full engagement in the alliance, though not necessarily through the large Cold War structure of costly permanent deployments.

How NATO Works in Practice

The end of the Cold War changed NATO's concept of operations. Instead of serving as a standing deterrent that would roll out as a large collective force in a defensive role, the alliance became the skeletal organizer of Western military muscle. NATO's structure lent itself to seemingly random operations with limited aims and duration, as well as interventions that required a long-game approach with multinational flavor. Small groups or coalitions of NATO members, united by a particular interest in a region, would act as first responders to a developing scenario. Once the initial step is taken, NATO possesses the ability to overlay a command, logistical and operational framework. A series of divisional headquarters give the organization a "plug-and-play" capability, delivering easily deployable command structures once political decision-making and force contributions have occurred. This system has worked relatively well for clear-cut, far-reaching missions that enjoy broad international support, anti-piracy missions and evacuations being prime examples.

Modern NATO's strength — 28 member states combined into a collective defense agreement — is also its Achilles' heel. The organization's members invariably have divergent geographic imperatives, differing perceived threats and lack a unifying enemy, for now. Unanimity is critical, not only for decision-making but also to guide the organization. Unfortunately, NATO has trouble agreeing on the most basic measures, which has been a recipe for strategic waffling and stagnation, leaving little opportunity for cohesive military development in an agreed direction. Any potential mission that could have political repercussions against a single member is unlikely to get off the ground. As a result, NATO has struggled to remain relevant in the post-Cold War world. 

Instead of being a nexus of global power, NATO more often than not has been relegated to being a tool of convenience, used when the political will exists and the timing is appropriate.

Despite everything, NATO is not irrelevant. The full combat potential of the alliance is something that no adversary can ignore. This has not stopped belligerent forces from testing the waters, but giving NATO the political will to act is a dangerous game, considering that the organization possesses some of the most advanced weaponry and best trained forces in the world. Given the alliance's emphasis on interoperability, some of NATO's immediate neighbors (including Russia specifically) are concerned about future threats. The fact that small, militarily weak nations can play host to significantly larger and more powerful NATO members gives the alliance options to amass combat power alarmingly close to Russia's heartland. NATO is a cumbersome beast that is hard to get moving and often indecisive, but if goaded into action, there are enormous consequences for the unwary.

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