European Affairs

New NATO Force Could Help, Not Hinder Europe     Print Email
Joseph Fitchett

In calling for a NATO "response force," a new tactical unit equipped with the latest American-style high-tech weaponry, the Bush administration has raised suspicions in some quarters that it is seeking to undermine the rapid reaction force that is planned as the military arm of the European Union.

That is not really the case, according to officials and military officers across the board in Brussels. On the contrary, the new NATO force could dovetail neatly with the proposed EU force and bring other advantages to the Europeans. Those expressing this positive view include both American and European officials, NATO aides and EU representatives, as well as aides to Javier Solana, who heads the European Union's diplomatic and security wing.

Whereas the NATO unit would be designed for heavy combat, the planned EU force is intended to handle peacekeeping-type missions and would at most involve the more muscular task of peace enforcement. "We are in the peacekeeping business," says Mr. Solana. The Europeans' goal is essentially to handle contingencies on their doorstep by deploying their own forces when Washington does not want to commit American ground troops.

The NATO unit would be very different, and would be designed for heavy combat. It would be a much smaller, but very sophisticated and mobile combat force merging infantry, air power and warships, on the model of the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration's idea is that NATO should put together an ultra-modern strike force on a par with cutting-edge U.S. forces. If implemented, it would be a way for allies to engage at least a fraction of their best forces in the new forms of warfare that are currently largely a U.S. monopoly. In this way, the European allies could gain experience with new military technologies and war-fighting doctrines at a price that they could conceivably afford.

Politically, the proposed new force could help revive NATO's role as the arm of combined Western military action, which has seemed to be languishing in U.S. operations in Afghanistan and in Washington's plans for military action against Iraq. As a European ambassador at NATO headquarters puts it: "One thing for certain, this is no Trojan horse."

In other words, the Bush administration is not trying to torpedo the European Union's plans for its own rapid reaction force. "We are talking about two distinct ambitions: European hopes of being able to deploy relatively big peacekeeping forces and NATO hopes of getting a smaller, crack task force to fight little wars or be the leading edge of a larger force for bigger conflicts," the ambassador says.

The EU force would aim at the operational deployment of 20,000 soldiers, the equivalent of a European army corps, or one-third of the total 60,000 troops who would be assigned to the force for a year. Even though the NATO number looks similar - 21,000 is the figure usually cited - the force is drastically different, as well as tougher. It integrates air and sea power with a small land force of 5,000 soldiers.

Linked by digital communications so that infantry, pilots and naval officers would all see the same battlefield right down to individual combatants, the NATO force would be designed for combat as tough as that encountered by U.S.-led forces in Iraq, ex-Yugoslavia or Afghanistan.

As outlined by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Alliance's ministerial meeting in Warsaw in September, the force would give Western governments a collective arm of great potential impact.

"For the most challenging missions, the capabilities-based joint force could notionally consist of sufficient air assets and command-and-control capabilities to support up to 200 combat air sorties per day, up to a brigade-sized land force and/or maritime forces up to the size of NATO's standing naval forces," according to an official allied formulation.

A force of this size - a brigade of 5,000 soldiers and 50 bombers conducting 200 sorties a day, supported by electronic warfare aircraft and air-to-air refueling tankers - would be far too small to wage a war. But it would have a tactical punch that, today, could only be delivered by the United States. Theoretically able to reach a crisis zone in less than a week, it could deter an aggressor or delay enemy forces long enough for NATO reinforcements to arrive.

Another possibility, much discussed in European capitals, would be immediate retaliation if the Alliance sought to lash back against the distant headquarters of a terrorist group that had carried out a September 11-type attack against targets in Amsterdam, Paris or some other European city.

When NATO invoked the collective defense provision of its Charter (Article 5) after September 11, the United States did not actually need allied troops for its Afghan campaign. But no European government will have comparable long-distance military reach unless the NATO force comes into being. Right now, in such a crisis, the only European option would be to ask Washington for help.

The NATO force could also be used for smaller missions, with the political pay-off that would come from arriving earlier in emergencies and thus saving lives. According to the NATO presentation, the Alliance needs "a credible force that is lethal, technically superior to any envisioned threat, readily deployable on short notice and capable of fighting unassisted for 30 days." One of its functions could be to pave the way for a larger follow-on force.

In practice, the proposed force amounts to a new, downsized approach to the Alliance's goal - adopted three years ago at the NATO summit meeting in Washington - of getting the European allies to buy advanced military technologies, especially communications, that fit with current U.S. capabilities.

That program has fared badly because European governments lack the budgets to re-equip their armed forces on such a grand scale. The NATO response force would be a much smaller, cheaper way of maintaining the goal of modernizing forces so as to enable them to continue operating together.

In this way, security specialists in Europe believe, the Alliance could forge a modernized military Transatlantic security link and provide a new operational format allowing the United States and Europe to respond to the challenges of the "era of terrorism." In this view, the threats posed today by "sub-state" actors can best be met with short, sharp allied responses, above all by quick military actions that require an agile, high-readiness force.

Washington has proposed that the new response force be formally approved at the NATO summit meeting to be held in Prague in late November. But even if the idea gets a political green light as quickly as that, fielding the force - in fact, even agreeing on a blueprint for it - will take months at best.

One advantage of this approach is that the force can start with a few countries and then gradually expand to include others. But the initial agreement will still require the allies to work out the devilish details of a complex multilateral innovation.

What formula, for example, will be adopted to create a pool of troops from NATO nations that does not overlap too heavily with the planned EU pool? (Answer: it will be tricky at first, but get easier as the allies modernize their armed forces and expand the pools available for both kinds of operations.)

More difficult is the question of how small countries would fit into the program. For the moment, only Britain and France have military units that would qualify to start immediate training with U.S. units for such a sophisticated force. Similar problems have impeded the emergence of the all-EU force, which is supposed to be able to work either alone or with U.S. forces.

Scheduled to be deployable some time next year, the European force is continuing to take shape. It has a degree of political inevitability, in that it is seen as a key building block for the emergence of a European Security and Defense Identity.

EU officials, however, concede that the drive to put operational EU forces in place has lost momentum over the last year. The slippage in the schedule became obvious in October, when it emerged that the European Union was not ready to follow through on its initial plan to take command of the NATO force in Macedonia. Now the first deployment of the EU force is expected to come next year in a mission to support the fledgling local police force in Bosnia.

Nevertheless, if the emergence of an EU force has been delayed, the idea is not being called into question. Temporary obstacles have contributed to a feeling that the next steps should be postponed. For example, political compromises and defense investments are needed to start creating multinational headquarters to command large units of pooled European forces. As neither has been forthcoming, the EU force consists only of an embryonic staff in Brussels.

A major obstacle is the resistance of Turkey, which is not a member of the European Union. Ankara fears that Greece, which is an EU member, might use a European force to gain advantages in the chronic border disputes between the two countries. So Turkey is using its membership in NATO, where unanimity is required on major decisions, to block an agreement providing for joint EU and NATO military planning.

That deal is the crucial accord guaranteeing that there will be no competition between the two defense programs. Without it, neither Washington nor key European capitals, starting with London, would want the EU force to become truly operational and take on its first missions.

Another reason why the EU force has slipped in priority has been the political calendar - leading politicians have been preoccupied this year with national elections in France and Germany. At the same time, top security decision-makers in Europe have been worrying about Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast to those pressures, the continuing stability of ex-Yugoslavia has eased fears of a new crisis in which the European Union might want to take urgent action on its own.

The slowdown does not signify a loss of determination, according to officials in EU capitals. Indeed, Europe's long decline in military spending seems to be turning around as defense budget increases have been announced in France, which is aiming for an initial six percent rise, to be followed by smaller increases in subsequent years.

Military spending is also expected to rise soon in Germany, now that the elections are over, EU sources say. Britain has confirmed plans to construct two new aircraft carriers, and Airbus remains confident that it will build a European military transport, the A400.

In a major departure in thinking about national defense and how to afford it, the idea is gaining ground that Europe's national armed forces should cautiously begin specializing much more than they have done in the past. Smaller countries would no longer make even a pretense of having the full gamut of armed forces - Belgium, for instance, might shut down its air force in order to build up gendarmerie forces. Instead, the smaller countries would contribute their share of an EU (and NATO) defense posture, relying on competitive advantages such as Norway's expertise in mountain warfare or Dutch mine-hunting capabilities.

The idea would have a double pay-off: the Alliance could avoid some national overlapping and waste, while small allies would acquire significant capabilities that could become indispensable to NATO for any major operation.

Even if all these ideas are implemented, however, the EU member states will still confront a clear need for significant increases in defense spending as the price of obtaining a European force. It would cost them even more to buy

a place in the proposed NATO force, as participants will face strict new spending demands from the United States.

For the moment, however, any prospect of increased European defense spending runs up against the strict limits on budget deficits imposed by the EU Stability and Growth Pact that is meant to help underpin the euro - limits that are already causing problems for many EU governments in other areas. These requirements are another reason why plans for introducing the EU force may have to be stretched out over more years.

With the EU defense force at least temporarily in the doldrums, European security specialists have welcomed the NATO "response force" as an idea that could help bridge what they call "the capabilities gap" that is continuing to widen between U.S. forces and even the best-equipped European allies.

Politically, the proposed NATO force is especially welcome among Europeans as a U.S. initiative that stresses joint Transatlantic operations - in contrast to the dismissive attitudes that have recently seemed to prevail in Washington toward NATO, ranging from benign neglect during the Afghan campaign to forthright dislike for coalition warfare in the comments of some Pentagon officials.

The Bush administration now seems to be abandoning the old fears among U.S. conservatives that an EU force might undermine the pre-eminence of NATO in Europe. Only two years ago, when the Democrats still held the White House, hawks in Washington were alarmed by the Clinton administration's encouragement of Europe's efforts to organize itself to handle some regional defense challenges.

Now that they are themselves in office, however, these conservative security specialists have strikingly changed their views. They recognize and embrace, for example, the gains to be realized - in terms of relieving the strain on U.S. forces - by having Europe's forces assume responsibility for peacekeeping in ex-Yugoslavia, and even in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the U.S. military, starting with General Joseph Ralston, the top NATO commander, and many voices in Congress, have warned that NATO is losing its core function of common defense based on Transatlantic unity.

Coalition warfare, as NATO had always planned against any Cold War assault, may soon be impossible because European forces are so under-equipped, for example in communications and night-fighting capabilities, that they could become a potentially dangerous burden, not an asset, to U.S. forces.

The NATO proposal aims directly at the technological misfit between U.S. and European combat forces, a neuralgic issue because European nations clearly lack the funds to try matching the United States. EU nations, of course, do not share the global responsibilities of the sort assumed by the United States, and which are reflected in the Bush administration's military spending.

The NATO response force would be a small-scale version of a modernized alliance that included only crack European units. The Alliance would be actively involved in the type of warfare, combining mobile forces with precision-guided firepower and highly sophisticated communication between infantry and fighter-bombers, that the Pentagon is hoping increasingly to make the model for the United States.

"The key metric of war is no longer space, it is time," General Ralston said recently at a conference in Brussels. Now that the threat of a Soviet armored thrust across Europe has disappeared, NATO no longer needs men and tanks, aircraft and ships that can hold European territory. Instead, it needs small forces that can be moved quickly to snuff out crises.

What makes this NATO venture so different is the firepower that can be obtained nowadays from forces that would have been considered too small only a few years ago. And the NATO force would be a complement to the EU force, not a replacement for it. With the EU force dedicated to peacekeeping and other assignments short of full-scale combat, the NATO force, for example, could be an ideal force to come to its rescue if the EU soldiers found themselves in a suddenly escalating conflict.

The novelty of the NATO force idea is that all the participants would be operating as an integrated unit using new technology and techniques of warfare pioneered by the United States, in which infantry, air power and naval strength are fused together. In such a "multi-arms" force, ground, sea and air units aim to operate together without referring back to three or four command levels.

"Instead of the old pattern in which tanks fought tanks, ships fought ships and aircraft fought aircraft, we now want to bring everyone to bear on an enemy that no longer matches us in every category but instead tries to elude us everywhere," in the words of an aide to General Ralston.

In this sense, the response force is an advanced version of the long accepted, but never tried, NATO concept of combined and joint task forces. These envisaged the United States lending its satellite intelligence, strategic lift aircraft and sophisticated battle-management systems to a task force of European allies for missions to which the United States did not want to contribute ground forces.

The key difference is that, in the new response force, European and U.S. units would have trained to fight effectively together, instead of just lining up alongside each other in an old-fashioned ad hoc coalition. The permanence of the arrangement would also have implications for arms purchases by European governments.

Although no one has said so officially, the force would probably be expected to buy, collectively, new "NATO assets," such as advanced air-to-ground surveillance aircraft and other new-generation technologies that the United States has wanted Europe to acquire in order to ensure that allied forces remain capable of going into battle together.

For Europeans, such an investment might be the cheapest way to retain cutting-edge capabilities, at least for elite units, during a transition period in which EU military integration could proceed at a manageable political pace.

As a new form of burden sharing, the NATO response force would also institutionalize integrated training (and perhaps shared combat experience) with U.S.-pioneered battle techniques, adding momentum to Europe's drive for a military role that could start to underpin its economic and political unity.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.