NATO Strategies for Northern Europe
Workshop Report: Program on Security in Northern Europe
The workshop opened with reflections on the essential importance of the rules-based international order for transatlantic security, and particularly for Northern Europe. That order requires U.S. leadership – NATO’s effectiveness as an alliance is inseparable from a robust U.S. commitment. Russian policy and actions are characterized by great ambition against the backdrop of economic stagnation; the potential either for decline or further aggressive moves by Moscow, or both, is significant. This remains a particular challenge for the transatlantic community, including in the High North and the Arctic. The participants’ deliberations focused on three main areas: the security situation in Northern Europe; the U.S. strategic outlook; and the future agenda for NATO in light of the July 2018 summit meeting. This summary attempts to reflect the breadth of views represented in a wide-ranging discussion; the workshop was not intended to achieve consensus on specific issues.
1. Reflections on Security in Northern Europe
Russia’s military modernization and aggressive behavior are the defining characteristics of the security situation in Northern Europe. Moscow’s acquisition of precision-guided weapons systems, its conventional rearmament, its efforts to counter NATO’s networked approach through strengthened electronic warfare capabilities, and its heightened operational tempo create an “arc of steel” from the Arctic to the Mediterranean Seas. At the same time, Russia’s military exercises and other activities are characterized by a lack of transparency -- ambiguity that Russia has used in the past to mask attacks. Combined with Russia’s strategic depth relative to NATO and European Union (EU) members, this creates a regional balance in Northern Europe that is more favorable to Russia than it has been since the end of the Cold War.
Moscow, for its part, sees a changing balance of power, believing NATO to be politically and strategically weak, lacking ambition beyond preserving a 10- to 20-year-old status quo.
In such changing circumstances, it is important for NATO allies to have a shared understanding of the challenges they face and how to confront them. There is often a significant divergence in the focus of European security discussions in Washington compared to Brussels, and among NATO members more generally. There is a risk of mutual misunderstanding affecting the political cohesion of the alliance.
How will NATO nations respond? Much of the evidence is heartening. Norway has received the first of its 52 F-35 aircraft, and it is acquiring 5 P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, which will enable greater intelligence cooperation and better monitoring of Russian submarine activity in the High North. Norway also is hosting a rotational 300-person force of U.S. Marines. Oslo has recommitted more generally to building defense capabilities, with 25% of its spending devoted to equipment (above the NATO defense investment target of 20%), and it plans to increase spending by an additional $1 billion between 2016 and 2020. At the same time, Nordic defense integration (which includes non-NATO Sweden and Finland) has been advancing for a decade, evolving from a cost-sharing, efficiency-based model to a more operational program of cooperation, though stopping short of any mutual defense obligations.
The United Kingdom has launched a National Security Capability Review, which builds on the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. The effect of Brexit on the UK budget remains uncertain (though the UK commitment to the NATO 2% spending target is not in question), and the nature of the UK’s departure from the EU could lead to a more Atlantic, less Continental focus. This means that Northern Europe increasingly is a focus of London’s security interest.
Several other European countries have taken steps to strengthen their capabilities, including Sweden, Poland, and Romania, each of which will acquire Patriot air/missile defense systems, and Lithuania, which is procuring National Advanced Surface-to-Air Systems (NASAMS). This presents opportunities for multinational cooperation bridging NATO and non-NATO members. Warsaw and Bucharest also are exploring purchase of U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), which would bring important new strike capabilities.
Washington sees the Russia challenge not only in its growing capabilities but also in Moscow’s readiness to use military power to achieve political ends. The United States stresses practical rather than theoretical responses to this situation. Russia is a strategic competitor, not a partner. Moscow’s rebuilding of its Arctic military capacity is a concern, and its exercises in European Russia highlight the advantages of its internal lines of communication. The United States sees a deficit of ready and rapidly deployable forces within NATO and a need for alliance members to have units of sufficient size on 7-14 day readiness.
European expectations from the United States also need to be practical and threat-based. A desire simply to have greater physical U.S. presence in the region is insufficient. There should be an assessment of capability gaps and proposals for how countries in the region can ultimately fill them, with a U.S. role as a capability enabler, integrator and bridge until European allies develop the required capabilities.
The 2016 Warsaw Summit emphasized the pillars of deterrence and dialogue in NATO’s Russia strategy and the value of political dialogue. Some participants, however, questioned Russia’s readiness to engage in a meaningful dialogue that increased European security, describing the interactions with Russia instead as two monologues. Expectations therefore should be modest, even if maintaining political channels remains important. The leading edge of NATO’s deterrence strategy in the north is the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), with battalion-sized units in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. There was discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of multinationality in the EFP. Some participants were concerned about a loss of efficiency in multinational units, while others emphasized the important message of cohesion and solidarity that the presence of forces from 19 NATO member states conveys. Many smaller members are unable to resource an entire battalion from their force structures, so their only option is to contribute under the leadership of the four framework nations. Participants underscored that the EFP poses no threat to Russia, despite Moscow’s propaganda attempts to this end, and these forces could not be considered provocative.
The focus in NATO’s northeast since 2014 has been on land forces. The alliance now needs to concentrate on enhancing its maritime and air forces and their integration into a joint approach.
2. The U.S. Strategic Outlook: National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Ballistic Missile Defense Review
After the publication of the U.S. National Security Strategy in December 2017, the National Defense Strategy in January 2018 and the Nuclear Posture Review in February 2018, there is quite a bit of information related to U.S. priorities. For the first time, China and Russia are named at rivals to the U.S. and allies and partners are considered a strategic necessity. However, these strategic documents are also backward-looking in that they continue to focus on a robust counter-terrorism and Middle East agenda. The Middle East, Iran, China and Northeast Asia, and Russia look quite different now.
The principal adversaries of the U.S. focus on horizontal integration – the incorporation of political and military instruments into a campaign – while the U.S. (and NATO) tend to separate non-military and military elements into different phases of a conflict and stovepipe them. In the nuclear domain, Russia was moving “downscale,” which suggests a possibility that Moscow may envision a use for shorter-range or smaller numbers of “low-yield” nuclear weapons. More generally, NATO should exercise the deployment of conventional forces to the eastern flank, and preposition sufficient equipment in Europe that its deterrent remains credible. Nuclear exercises need to be improved, and NATO should consider ways to expand burdensharing – not by seeking new locations at which to base U.S. nuclear weapons but possibly by increasing the pool of nations seconding pilots to fly dual-capable aircraft at existing locations.
3. Shaping the NATO Agenda: the 2018 Summit
NATO’s Strategic Concept was adopted in 2010, and several voices stressed the need to update it. The security landscape has changed significantly and NATO’s deterrence and defense posture has evolved. A new Strategic Concept, properly managed, could raise the profile of the alliance in NATO member states, remind populations of NATO’s role and value, and thereby boost public support at a time when politics is fragmenting on both sides of the Atlantic. A process could be launched at the 2018 that would build toward adoption of a new Strategic Concept at some future Summit. Some demurred, suggesting that the accretion of guidance in successive NATO Summit declarations (especially the 2014 Wales and 2016 Warsaw Summits) accurately characterized the new security situation and provided the necessary political framework for allies and NATO as an organization.
An alliance of 29 members cannot function the same way as it did at 15. That means exploring new ways for NATO to act flexibly while retaining the consultative processes that were the foundation of cohesion. Rebuilding regional structures that were removed in previous reforms of the NATO Command Structure could play an important role.
The challenges to NATO are not only in the north. There are differing South-North and East-West perspectives on defense within NATO that must be addressed through articulation of a northern strategy (including mutually beneficial approaches with Sweden and Finland), and formulation of a coherent southern strategy to complement the eastern flank strategy. Rebuilding the readiness of NATO forces is important, as is preparing for “hybrid” threats and dealing with the issues of conventional and nuclear deterrence. Together, new NATO thinking on these issues and on the nature of the Russia challenge could constitute a Summit package.
European allies are demonstrating renewed seriousness about increasing defense resources, which is welcome news to the United States. Ensuring that increased spending is focused on critical capabilities and not on spending for its own sake is essential to strengthening NATO. Europe must improve infrastructure, sustainment and mobility. The requirements should be driven by NATO defense needs, but the European Union has a crucial role to play. The partnership between the two organizations in addressing military mobility has great potential and requires political attention.
A Rejuvenated Command Structure
An update to alliance structures is needed in order to have a war-ready NATO Command Structure that faces the current and foreseeable security challenges. From a peak of 22 commands in the Cold War, NATO undertook several reforms of the command structure, most recently in 2011, reducing to a total of 7 commands. Personnel in NATO commands declined from a peak of 33,000 to fewer than 9,000.
NATO Defense Ministers agreed in November 2017 to create new command structure elements – the location and composition of those two commands are not yet agreed but will be discussed by ministers in February 2018, with the intent that Heads of State and Government will endorse them at the July 2018 summit. The command for the Atlantic could be a Joint Force Command (which would be NATO’s third, joining Naples and Brunssum), with responsibility for sea lines of communication and tasks such as close escort, area air defense, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). A Rear Area Operations Command will address the challenges of mobility and logistics that are essential to NATO’s reinforcement strategy, most clearly on the eastern flank.
There was discussion about the roles of national military commands within the NATO structure, which could be a cost-effective way to ensure that there is standing capacity in NATO with regional expertise, and that unity of command is achieved early in a crisis, before any possible hostilities.
The issues at stake in updating NATO’s command structure will be a key element in NATO’s 2018 Trident Juncture exercise, which Norway will host.
Force Posture and Exercises
The United States’ contribution to strengthened conventional force posture in Europe has relied up to now on rotations of heavy forces from the U.S. to the eastern flank. This has served a valuable purpose in identifying and beginning to address the logistical issues involved in movement of forces across the Atlantic and through Europe. The ongoing cost of rotations raises questions about efficiency and cost-effectiveness over time and requires discussion of increasing the number of permanently stationed forces in Europe. From a domestic perspective, however, it is hard in a U.S. context to contemplate transferring domestically based units of the Army to Europe unless the Army itself is growing in size.
Russia’s growing capabilities raise the need for a stronger NATO air defense posture – namely, a shift from air policing to air defense. The air policing presence in the Baltic states (and the air surveillance/interception mission in Iceland) could be upgraded to air defense through an adaptation of the rules of engagement and the acquisition and integration of additional national sensors.
Military exercises should not be viewed simply as training opportunities, but primarily as deterrence and messaging mechanisms. NATO has improved the scheduling of its exercises, but more can still be done. There needs to be a well thought-out and comprehensive schedule of military exercises that does not have overlapping exercises and gaps in the curriculum. Bringing back scenario-based discussions at the ministerial level would help prepare for actual crisis situations and build consensus that would be crucial in a conflict.
U.S. Executive and Legislative Perspectives
After early mixed signals, the President has endorsed the U.S. Article 5 commitment, and the national security elements of the Executive Branch have sought to underscore that at every turn. Congress for its part has stressed its support for Article 5 and for a strong U.S. position on European security. The Congress has a high degree of interest in the 2018 NATO Summit; this is not limited just to the understandable focus on European allies and Canada increasing their spending on defense. The decrease in Congressional policy staff levels in recent years represents a challenge to preserving institutional expertise on transatlantic security issues.
Participants emphasized the importance of a strong U.S. diplomatic component to balance and complement the role of the Defense Department and the U.S. military. This was essential in building productive and sustainable approaches with U.S. allies.
NATO’s Relationship with Russia
The desire to see Russia as a strategic partner, or at least as a potential partner, has been persistent in the West. But it has been evident at least since 2014 that Moscow sees NATO and the West as an adversary, and Russia has sought a variety of means to undermine individual countries as well as organizations like NATO, the EU, and the OSCE.
Russia has strengthened and modernized its military presence and improved the quality of its forces in the High North and has a joint strategic command in the Arctic. It has reopened Soviet-era bases and built new facilities and is looking to build its ability to control the seas. During the Zapad exercise, which ostensibly focuses on the Western Military District, the Northern Fleet participated in linked exercises.
Zapad 2017 was not as big as it was expected to be; there was no certain explanation, but several possible reasons for this. It might have been a reaction to the strengthened Western intelligence-gathering posture. It is also possible that President Putin sought internationally to undermine Western narratives about Russia’s aggressive tendencies and domestically to project an image of a besieged Russia that needs a strong leader to protect it from Europe. Zapad did demonstrate the Russian understanding of combined arms and ability to control information flows. It also demonstrated that Belarus has lost sovereignty in the control of foreign forces on its territory.
There needs to be an open but measured discussion about the challenges Russia poses to the security of Europe and to the European political order. NATO has work to do to improve its collective understanding of Moscow’s way of thinking. Norway’s approach to defense of the High North, for example, is one of defense and deterrence combined with cooperation and dialogue with Russia. Norway cooperates with Russia when it comes to border control, search and rescue, coast guard operations, and environmental protection. This productive working relationship takes place within the constraints of international sanctions on Russia resulting from its intervention in Ukraine.
NATO and China
China’s role and its joint exercises with Russia are a source of some concern. In geopolitical terms, closeness between Russia and China represents a challenge to the transatlantic community as recent joint maritime exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean and Baltic Seas attest. It is clear that China will seek to acquire through this partnership greater intelligence and understanding of U.S. tactics, techniques, and procedures. There is therefore little optimism about the prospects for a NATO-China relationship or a reoriented Chinese approach.
The event was organized within the Security and Defense in Northern Europe research program, which is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and is a collaborative effort of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), in collaboration with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).