NATO Force Planning and the Impact of the Ukraine War

There is no way as yet to know how the war in Ukraine will end, or even whether it will end or linger on at low levels or in the form of an uncertain ceasefire. What does seem all too predictable is that NATO will face a continuing and far more aggressive challenge from NATO as long as Putin is in power.

It also seems all too likely to be a future where Russia will continue to exploit every weakness and division in NATO at the political and economic level and will attempt to exploit the one area where it remains a real superpower – its lead in both deployed strategic nuclear weapons and its holding of stored tactical and theater nuclear weapons – at both political and military levels. It seems equally likely that Russia will try to exploit its gas and oil exports in new ways, maintain its new ties to OPEC as long as it can, and strengthen its ties to China.

The days in which the members of NATO could exploit the peace dividends that occurred with the break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and the Warsaw Pact in February 1991, now seem to have ended, and so have the days in which they could safely cut their forces and let them go hollow in terms of strength, modernization, and readiness.

It is equally clear that NATO cannot continue to rely on vague goals like spending 2% of GNP on defense and 20% of this spending on equipment. It needs to honestly assess the Russian threat, examine its key areas of weakness on a country-by-country basis, rebuild key deterrent and defense forces, and meet the challenge of modernizing national forces in ways that reflect both the reality of an ongoing revolution in military affairs and the need for fully coordinated and interoperable forces.

How Much Is Enough? The Need for Net Assessment

That said, there is no way at present to predict the level of force improvements that NATO countries will need to make. Much will depend on how the war in Ukraine proceeds, what Russia spends and does with its forces, and how the war affects Russia’s alignments with given European states and China. In the case of the U.S., much will also depend on China’s continuing ability to compete in Asia, and Britain’s strategy at least mentions the intention to expand its global role.

The challenge will also mean dealing with the past as well as the future. NATO countries differ radically in terms of their levels of force modernization, readiness, interoperability, and past effort to tailor their forces to meet both national and NATO needs. Anyone who compares the unclassified data on the different current personnel strength and major weapons holdings in the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) annual Military Balance, and the national military reports of IHS Janes, will immediately recognize how different each nation’s requirements are.

Further, unclassified reports on total personnel, and major equipment, say little or nothing about the differences in readiness, training, logistics, holdings of supplies and munitions, and the extent to which major weapons platforms are supported by advanced weapons systems. They say nothing about the comparative quality and modernization of comparative command, communication, and control, of battle management systems, and of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. They ignore differences in access to support from space-based systems, progress in any form of cyber warfare and artificial intelligence, and progress and interoperability in advancing to real-world capabilities for Joint All-Domain Warfare.

NATO had more than enough problems coordinating its national efforts with sixteen countries under the pressures of the Cold War, and at a time when NATO force planning had at least some aspects of effective force planning. Since the early 1990s, such efforts have become far less effective and been shaped by the absorption of most of the former Warsaw Pact powers that have limited resources and whose forces had been shaped and equipped by the former Soviet Union.

While the Russian seize of Crimea and part of Ukraine in 2014 should have been a warning, the end result was a ridiculous call for spending 2% of GDP on defense without any meaningful force planning effort to determine what levels of national spending were actually needed and practical, and a call for 20% of defense spending to be spent on equipment without any clear priorities, and in spite of the fact that member countries defined their equipment spending so differently that a seeming common standard was statistically absurd.

The net result is that a 30 (or 32) nation NATO now faces a Russia that had launched the war in Ukraine, where some real progress has been made in coordinating and improving forces, but far too many critical challenges have not been addressed. National defense white papers largely do little more than pay lip service to NATO. Most public national strategy papers consist largely of broad goals and wish lists with no real plans, priorities, functional programs, and estimates to link national strategy to defense budgets.

Moreover, there have been no public official net assessments of how NATO compares with Russia and Belarus - Russia’s only current real strategic partner in military terms. As recent reporting on the Ukraine War has shown, most public reporting sharply overestimated both the size and progress of Russian conventional forces, but there is no clear picture of what these capabilities really are. Experts also differ radically over the comparative size of Russian versus NATO defense spending.

The 2022 edition of the IISS Military Balance puts Russian defense spending at $62.2 to $65.9 billion, and the official Russian defense budget at $45.8 billion; and has a graph showing massive swings in purchasing power measured in 2015 constant dollars.[i] The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts Russian spending at $65.9 billion, and notes that,[ii]

The ‘national defence’ budget line, which accounts for three-quarters of SIPRI’s estimate of total Russian military spending and includes funding for operational costs as well as arms procurement, was revised upwards over the course of the year. From an initial value of $42.3 billion in December 2020, the budget line rose to $48.4 billion by the end of 2021—an increase of 14 per cent over the year, which probably mostly went towards additional operational costs.

The difficulty with these figures is that they may say nothing realistic about Russian capability to manipulate its command economy. If they were accurate, Britain alone would outspend Russia on defense in 2021 at $68.4 billion. [iii] The U.S. alone would outspend the SIPRI estimate of U.S. spending ($801 billion) by eleven times, and China would outspend the SIPRI estimate of $293 billion by 4.4 times.[iv]

If one uses the NATO defense expenditure data, the total for NATO is $1,175 billion, or 17.8 times the Russian figure. Europe and Canada are estimated to spend a total of $364 billion, or 5.5 times the Russian figure.[v] There would never have been any reasons for NATO to have to spend 2% of its GDP on defense other than sheer incompetence and inefficiency – an explanation that seems even more incredible given Russia’s often dismal performance in Ukraine.

In practice, current unclassified estimates of total Russian forces are far too high to be affordable with the IISS and SIPRI spending levels, and it is clear that NATO and its member countries need to do more than talk about net assessment and actually tie their force plans and defense spending plans to some realistic estimate of the threat. Taken out of context, the emphasis on 2% of GDP was merely very silly. Put in the context of the current data on the threat, it is absolutely ridiculous.

It is also dangerous because this means the uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the Ukraine war are compounded by a lack of credible force planning at a time when all NATO nations face a growing competition between military spending and civil spending – one compounded in recent years by both COVID and the clear emergence of Russia as a continuing threat in the form of the Ukraine War. Most of the major NATO states initially reacted to Russia’s invasion by providing major amounts of aid to Ukraine, and some countries like Germany have pledged to make up for years of force and readiness cuts and chronic underspending.

It is already clear, however, that all NATO countries face major civil spending challenges in recovering from the impact of Covid, and that they have also faced major new inflationary strains partly because of the rises in energy costs coming out of the sanctions placed on Russian gas and oil exports. It is becoming less clear that they will continue to spend on Ukraine if the war goes on at a serious level for several more years, and even less clear they will spend on both making critical improvements in their own forces and at the same time supporting Ukraine. Moreover, the need to spend on finding energy substitutes for Russian gas and oil, clean or not, and to deal with climate change, is adding to the pressure for added civil spending. National security is a critical priority, but spending on military forces is still only one priority among several.

Some Force Planning Priorities Are Clear

So far, neither NATO’s new strategy nor any major national defense white paper and national strategy has begun to address these issues or NATO force planning in any serious way. At the same time, however, they do set some broad goals – and when one combines them with the lessons of the war in Ukraine and the advances taking place in warfighting and military technology, some priorities are clear.

Shifts in Methods of NATO and National Force Planning and Development

Although the programs necessary to implement them will require constant review on a country-by-country basis, NATO and its member countries clearly need to address the following broad priorities:

  • Shift from public focus on spending 2% of GDP, and 20% of that on equipment, to country-by-country focus creating a high level of deterrence, and more effective and interoperable forces.
  • Revitalize Planning, Programming, and Budgeting systems, and create a real-world NATO and national strategies
  • Gradually restructure NATO forces and military capabilities to deal with an evolving Russia and the eventual outcome of the Ukraine War.
  • Carry out net assessments - and tie NATO and NATO country military plans, programs, and budgets to deal with projected changes and upgrades in Russian, Chinese, DPRK, Iran, and terrorist/extremist Forces on a continuing basis.
  • Revitalize strategic partnerships within and beyond NATO – in Europe, Indian Ocean and Gulf, and the Pacific. Create effective plans to support NATO countries in the forward area near Russia from key European powers in the rear areas like Britain, France, UK, and Italy, and better preposition and prepare facilities and transit routes for power projection from U.S. and Canada
  • Compete effectively with Russia in the civil sector, in RDT&E and economic strength, critical materials, and transit links. Compete jointly in civil and non-combat military operations

Major Force Improvement Priorities

At the same time, NATO and each member country must deal with specific military priorities that grow out of past underspending and investment, the lessons of recent wars, and advances in warfighting technology and capabilities that are already under development in some form.

Here, it is clear that this will be an evolutionary process where only NATO’s larger and wealthier states can play a major role in shaping the overall structure of the developments and forces required, but all can share in the result and participate to some degree – although all NATO countries will have to compromise to some extent in meeting such goals and many countries will have to depend heavily on partner states.

It should also be apparent that all of these priorities will change over a period no longer than the next five years,

  • Honestly reexamine the current force structures and plans of each country to determine the major gaps and problems in its forces, current force development plan, mission focus, and interoperability. Look beyond numbers of personnel, orders of battle, and major military platforms and weaponry. Examine readiness, training, war reserves, stockpiles and support capabilities, and correct major deficiencies over time.
  • Exploit - and cope - with Emerging and Disruptive Technologies: cyber, hypersonics, space, CBW, air/missile defense, and precision conventional strike.
  • Build on artificial intelligence, space, and cyber to develop force plans to create a better balance between modernization, readiness, sustainability, defense industrial base; platform, weaponry, and C4I/BM.
  • Create - and continuously evolve - effective Joint All Domain force capabilities on an interoperable NATO-wide basis. Develop high and low options where larger countries can support smaller nations.
  • Plan to cope with a possible (probable) Russian emphasis on its one remaining major current area of superpower status: Its tactical, theater, and strategic nuclear weapons. Consider how the U.S., Britain, and France can provide extended deterrence. Consider the revival of NATO tactical and theater nuclear options.
  • React to a key lesson of the war in Ukraine – the shift to widely different capabilities for precision conventional strike that can be used against both military and civilian targets and for infrastructure warfare. Focus on creating an effective family of short- to long-range “smart”/guided conventional weapons ranging from drones to hypersonic weapons. Focus as much on deploying adequate stocks of such weapons for land, air, and sea systems as on upgrading major weapons platforms. Use them a create a theater-wide shield for all NATO countries.
  • Create effective national and integrated NATO theater air and missile defenses, and move towards fully interoperable 4th and 5th generation air forces that combine air defense and strike capabilities. Create a layered force structure that covers all NATO states.
  • Give equal priority to developing more effective national and NATO ground forces – focus heavily on rebuilding German and French forward deployment and U.S. rapid deployment from CONUS capabilities. Seek to modernize ex-Warsaw Pact forces and make them more interoperable through common battle management, training and exercises, C4I, and intelligence and surveillance efforts.
  • End the decline in many NATO navies and focus on countering actual Russian naval threats. Give priority to anti-SSN anti-submarine warfare efforts, dealing with smart mines and the evolution of unmanned surface and submarine platforms, and securing ports and naval lines of communication. Reexamine priorities for options in Artic, Mediterranean, Baltic, and out-of-area operations.

Keeping NATO Efforts in Perspective

It is important to note several real-world aspects of these force planning priorities. First, they must be tailored to deal with the actual evolution of the Russian threat, and a full net assessment of what Russian spending and capabilities are, the development Russia actually is making, and its reaction to the Ukraine War over time.

The goal is to create the most cost-effective structure of deterrence and warfighting capability, not to solve every problem. It is also to reflect the need to treat given NATO countries differently and prioritize in ways that meet both national and NATO needs.

Second, the recommendations made regarding Shifts in Methods of NATO and National Force Planning and Development do not mean that NATO can solve every problem or that NATO countries can (or will) spend enough to solve all of the most important problems.

They must be applied in ways that accept the fact that competition with civil spending will often mean hard compromises and trade-offs over what can be accomplished over time, and that larger and more advanced power will have to support smaller and poorer states. There is no clear answer to “how much is enough” or to how the “burden” should be allocated. The goal is to make better compromises in making better common efforts.

Third, the list of Major Force Improvement Priorities may initially seem daunting, but it is a list that many NATO countries are always attempting to cope with, and the scale of effort should again be tailored to meet a Russian threat that has already shown that past intelligence estimates sharply exaggerated. The goal should be to react over time as efficiently as possible, while accepting the need to respond to demands for civil spending.

Well-managed and realistic plans and budget will be critical, and limiting cost escalation and technical risk will be equally important. More generally, all of these priorities involve ongoing shifts in military technology and warfighting methods that interact and are driven by real-world political events. There is a tendency to try to plan too far into the future or create fixed plans as if unanticipated annual events and changes in cost and technology would not change the need for given efforts. By and large, even guessing needs five years in the future has a high element of risk, which is why effective force planning must be proactive on an annual basis.

More broadly, there is a critical need for public transparency. There are many aspects of net assessment and force planning that require some degree of security, but the vast majority of such efforts are “public” to any advanced power like Russia or China. The same is true of making public net assessments of the threat that they, other power, and extremist groups present to NATO and NATO states.

Publicly addressing the gaps and problems in given national forces is only embarrassing when countries hide failures in their national efforts that they truly need to correct. All force planning involves major compromises as to what is actually affordable and what can actually be done. The present approach of issuing hollow strategy documents, failing to justify defense spending through net assessments, and hiding the gaps in national efforts critically undermines and limits the effort of every NATO country as well as the effectiveness of the alliance.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

[i] Pages 1, and 192

[ii] SIPIRI, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021, pp. 2,5.

[iii] SIPIRI, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021, pp. 2,5.

[iv] SIPIRI, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021, pp. 2,5.

[v] NATO, p.7

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Paul Cormarie

Research Intern, Emeritus Chair in Strategy