2 December 2019

NATO needs to improve its reinforcement capability

If Russia attacks the Baltic States and Poland, NATO needs to be able to quickly support the forces already in place by moving units from other member states. An FOI study reveals not only several weaknesses in NATO’s capability to conduct reinforcement operations, but also how the alliance is working to rectify the problem.

US Army personnel

US Army personnel offload military equipment at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta in Romania. AFP PHOTO/Daniel Mihailescu.

Since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014, NATO has focused on strengthening its defence capability in the Baltics and Poland so as to deter Russia from attacking. NATO’s current posture in these countries, in addition to the latter’s respective national forces, is comprised of a limited forward presence that depends on rapid reinforcement in the event of a crisis. The forward-deployed units consist, among other things, of battalion-sized battlegroups on rotation from other member countries. Moreover, the USA carries out bilateral rotations of American forces to Central and Eastern Europe.

FOI was commissioned by the Swedish Ministry of Defence to examine NATO’s capability to deploy forces. There are currently several practical, legal, and infrastructural obstacles to efficient reinforcement operations to and within Europe, but which NATO is striving to address. On the one hand, parts of Europe’s transport infrastructure are unable to support heavy military equipment, while on the other hand the creation of new staffs has led to ambiguities regarding areas of responsibility. NATO also has a problem making quick decisions.

“A number of measures have been undertaken to speed up decision-making; for example, NATO has tried to improve intelligence-sharing between member countries and to get them to agree on what constitutes the start of a crisis, so that preparations for deployment of forces can be made at an early stage. But still more needs to be done,” says FOI’s researcher Eva Hagström Frisell, one of the authors of the report.

Difficult trade-offs

One measure that has been discussed is to enhance the mandates of NATO commanders to mobilize the alliance’s rapid response forces during a crisis. But reinforcement operations are not only a military but also a political question, explains Eva Hagström Frisell.

“NATO’s members have different views on the threat from Russia and the measures that should be taken. So, a balance must be struck between which military measures are needed and what is possible politically. One has to remember that there are many difficult considerations of cost and emphasis that the allies need to address. Large-scale reinforcement exercises are also necessary for improving NATO’s capability. In addition, logistics capability is crucial to being able to receive and host units that, for example, come from the other side of the Atlantic. The US has taken several steps to improve its logistics capability, but the European NATO countries are lagging behind.”

Deterrence or defence?

The underlying question is whether NATO should not only aim for deterrence but also prepare for defence, which would require further commitments. At NATO’s coming summit, in London, 3-4 December 2019, the discussion will mainly involve NATO’s political cohesion and the issue of burden-sharing between the USA and Europe.

“To maintain transatlantic cooperation and continue to build the common defence of Europe, European countries must assume greater economic and political responsibility,” concluded Eva Hagström Frisell.