Nato—time to wake up or shut down

Faced with a resurgent and objectionable Russia, and a transactional US, Nato must urgently transform for the new age

(Illustration by Miles Cole)

Nato, we have repeated for the last 70 years, is the “cornerstone of our defence”. We really meant it: collective defence was the only effective and affordable way to secure Europe, the Atlantic, and the US against the Soviet (and then Russian) potential for nuclear and conventional military aggression. With a combined population of nearly 940 million people and GDP of over $41 trillion, Nato countries could clearly summon the power to protect their homelands and vital interests.

But weak, poorly directed defence spending, political divisions, mission creep and the changing nature of international conflicts have weakened Nato, while Russian innovation and focus have given the Kremlin a comparative advantage. The evolving strategic context is even more daunting. It will feature the replacement of a US-led world by the complex dynamics of the Asian century, including the potential for “Thucydides Trap” moments, where war becomes more likely as rising powers displace established ones. Mankind is hitting the limits of the planet’s ability to absorb all our expectations, demands and abuse. The full potential of the digital age will unfold, led by artificial intelligence (AI) but combining all the disruptive potential of data, processing power, connectivity, gene engineering, bioscience, autonomy, robotics and quantum computing. This will continue to disrupt how we live, work and play—and fight—at least as powerfully as climate change. 

For now, though, the problem is Russia. With around 140 million people, a GDP of only $1.6 trillion and riven by corruption, inefficiency and economic decline it ought to be a nuisance, not a menace. But the regime in Moscow acts with the vigour of the belief that it is at war with the West and with the advantages of a monolithic state organisation unencumbered by the laws and values of Western democracies.

A developing conventional advantage (see page 16)  has proceeded in tandem with the evolution of  “hybrid” or “grey space” capabilities for confrontation and conflict. Keenly aware of the need to avoid mobilising and fighting the full weight of US and European military force, Russia has renewed its ability to muster all its other levers of power in order to destabilise and fragment Nato.  Russia’s ability to align politics, diplomacy, money, proxies, information and cyber weapons is no secret, yet national governments, Nato and the EU struggle to counter, deter or mitigate these actions. The public in most countries does not (yet) regard defence as a priority. Politicians tailor their budgets accordingly. Perceived failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya contribute to this strategic fatigue. US taxpayers object to bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of European security, especially when they see wealthy Europeans providing themselves with expensive public services with the money “saved” on defence. As China eclipses Russia as the primary security concern, US support to Nato is very likely to decline.

The US military’s ability to mobilise overwhelming military capability given enough notice is what makes Nato credible. The US brings scale, mass and readiness. Even more important are strategic capabilities such as space-based surveillance, intelligence, command and control, air and missile defence, anti-submarine capability, and theatre-wide logistics. Europe could in theory afford to build these for itself but so far is unwilling even to pay an equitable share of the burden, let alone replace US largesse.

Lack of resilience adds another gloomy note to the picture.  Deterrence consists of the credible hurt that you can inflict and your own ability to absorb blows. Since the end of the Cold War most European countries have paid very little attention to the resilience of their citizens, institutions, government and armed forces. The illusion shaped by the last 30 years is that war touches Europe only by choice and always abroad.

‘How long would it take for a European country to fold once power, water, telecoms, fuel, banking and supermarket distribution systems were comprehensively disrupted?’

This view is entirely at odds with Russia’s emerging potential. Missile strikes, cyber attacks and skilful media manipulation can smash national resilience without territorial invasion. Most European armed forces rely on bases and infrastructure that are well-known, undefended and dependent on industrial support, and logistics located exclusively above ground. This is fine for sallying forth to Afghanistan. It is hopeless in modern state-on-state conflict. Leaving the military dimension aside, how long would it take for a European country to fold once power, water, telecoms, fuel, banking and supermarket distribution systems were comprehensively disrupted? Almost the only countries to take resilience seriously are Finland and Sweden—which are not members of Nato.

If the European Union will never match its economic power with military power, or even effective collective hybrid power, will Nato change to match new strategic circumstances or will these circumstances drive new alliances?

This question poses difficult choices, particularly for the alliance’s European members. One option is do nothing, hoping that things turn out well—and if they do not, that the US will ride rapidly to the rescue. Even if this works in the conventional military domain in Europe, it will still mean being egregiously poked daily by Russian hybrid campaigning. Contributions to stability in Africa, the Gulf and Asia will be very limited.

If relying on the restraint of our opponents looks too risky, some modest steps would significantly reduce the present acute disadvantages. First, reset the alliance to counter Russian capability and readiness as it now exists, which is not as it once was. This means investing in enough air and missile defence to be able to dominate across the Nato area to both deter, and if necessary to reinforce to defeat, a small territorial incursion. European Nato members need their own conventional long-range precision capabilities to deter Russian aggression below the nuclear threshold, both against our daily life and against the movement, deployment and manoeuvre of conventional forces. Missiles now matter at least as much as numbers of ships, battalions and aircraft.

Modernising conventional capability has to be matched by improving resilience against physical and hybrid attack. New standards need to be set for resilience, dispelling the thought that Nato members’ homelands are inviolate. Basic measures include boosting cyber hygiene (including at an individual and household level) and how to respond if basic utilities have ceased to function. On a more controversial note, it means restoring the basic ability of government, armed forces, and key industry to survive, mobilise and operate under conditions of precision missile and cyber attack. This is strategic fact not science fiction.

Hybrid power is here to stay, whether as a precursor to fighting, as a substitute for it, or as a stablemate. Does Nato evolve so that it can control non-military resources in confrontation and conflict that extend well beyond conventional forces and kinetic weapons? How member states commit their public and private sector soft power to collective defence is just as important as their contributions to Nato’s force structure. This must include levers such as economic and financial sanctions, defensive cyber coordination and offensive cyber efforts, and integrated social media campaigning. This all means a much bigger civilian component in the alliance, to create a unitary, full-spectrum capability for confrontation or conflict.

By far the most important step is to lead the transformation of defence and security in the digital age. This means an end to spending on increasingly unaffordable and obsolescent capability, and to breaking the paradigms of volunteer forces that are too costly to equip and grow. Much of this is about the application of technologies well advanced in the civil sector to new forms of military equipment, organisation and method, rather than reinventing the wheel inside government. The big handfuls of this transformation are already clear and ripe for exploitation, but are only being enacted piecemeal by some armed forces: this is not about accessorising current ways of operating with a dab of data and AI, it is about wholesale, concurrent transformation over time through the application of combinations of Digital Age technology. Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command and control, maritime, land, air, space and logistic capability will all be disrupted.

Military command and control will undergo the most profound changes in over 150 years. All forms of combat capability will move from the present reliance on manned platforms to a thoughtful mix of fewer manned elements and many more unmanned and especially autonomous means. As sensors and weapons no longer need costly manned platforms to deploy, they can be fielded in many cheaper, smaller, simpler, and more resilient, networked formats. The faster this can be done, fewer people will be required overall and fewer of them will be in harm’s way, and the bill reduced by the happy news that robots don’t need pensions. A bigger role for reserves and industry will increase size at lower cost and with greater resilience. The combination of remotely stored data (the “secure cloud”) and artificial intelligence employed in what in military parlance is now called a “Single Synthetic Environment” will underpin situation understanding, decision-making, planning, operational coordination, mission rehearsal, training and experimentation. Transformation like this will need a financial surge, but it will lead to the restoration of effective defence and security at a sustainably affordable price. This is also now a global competition which Nato is capable of winning if energised or losing if it slumbers. Failure will call into question Nato’s utility and promote the search for alternatives: doing better is not discretionary.

Nato’s long-term struggle to revitalise, modernise and mobilise, plus the fresh uncertainty over the durability of US support, and now the EU’s development of a stronger foreign and security “voice”, have contributed to the genesis of a variety of bilateral and multilateral European initiatives. Do these have the potential to eclipse or substitute for a crumbling Nato? Whilst the theoretical answer is “yes” (Europe clearly has the money, the technology and the mass to do so if it wanted to) the evidence so far is that it is a very long way off choosing to do so.  So far, the much-touted, ill-defined “European Army” seems to mean light intervention forces suitable for a bad day in a part of Africa, not full-spectrum capability for 21st-century state-level conflict.

EU initiatives to date span research and development (R&D), military command and control, force development and organisation. First, the EU has set aside €5.6 billion ($6.2 billion) annually for R&D in the European Defence Fund, but as the US spent $55.4 billion on defence R&D in 2017—more than all the OECD countries combined—this is hardly a decisive move. Second, there is a military staff as part of the EU Commission structure (the Military Planning and Conduct Capability). This comprises some 150 people; the Nato command structure alone is 6,800 people in seven commands. Third, the Permanent Structured Cooperation in Defence (PESCO) launched in 2017 provides a mechanism for EU nations to collaborate on selected aspects of capability development with a lead nation—but joining any one project is entirely discretionary. The project on a future armoured infantry fighting vehicle, for example, has only three participants and four “observers”. There are some 18 manufacturers of these vehicles in Europe.

European nations still waste a huge amount of money buying small runs of nationally sourced weapons and equipment where they can, collaborating only when cost and complexity force them to. There have been big ticket items like the A400M aircraft and the EH101 helicopter, but even the CEO of Airbus called coordinating European investment in the former a “horror”. The products resulting from European cooperation are generally very good, though frequently late and in some cases more expensive than the US equivalent. They say more about the desire to protect individual European defence industry champions than about fielding the most efficient and effective forces.

Fourth, European military formations now include Eurocorps (originally France and Germany in 1992, now also Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg, Poland, Greece, Turkey and Romania) and since 2018 France’s European Intervention Initiative with 14 nations. These military organisations share a limited scale and ambition: they are focused on headquarters large enough to accommodate enough staff from the contributing nations (providing day care for middle-aged officers), and for developing military “cultural alignment”. They are not ready for state vs. state conflict, and indeed are unable to deploy anywhere robustly and quickly. Similarly, EU Battle Groups have been provided by nations in rotation since 2005, but at 1,500 strong they have no self-contained capacity for deployment, sustainment, force protection, fire, or manoeuvre against even modest ground-based opposition, quite apart from having no organic air power. They have trained well, hosted many media-rich political and diplomatic visits, and never been close to being deployed in earnest, despite some opportunities—for example to support the UN in Africa.

There are some non-EU, bilaterally based defence arrangements, notably the UK-framework Joint Expeditionary Force (UK, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway). This is something of a “band of brothers” formed alongside Nato around a common concern about Russia—and a niggling concern that Nato just might not find the consensus to act if Russia’s challenge is confined to the north of Europe. The JEF is as good as the capabilities that these nations choose to provide, which is competent, but a very long way short of what a US-backed coalition can draw on. Similarly, the UK-France Combined Joint Expeditionary Force created by the Lancaster House Treaty of 2010 has completed some useful navy, army, and air force training, but has not been designed with use in mind—not even to support French-led operations in Mali. (As ever in UK-France military matters, the rhetoric is always about a happy marriage and the behaviour is more “friends with benefits”.)

It is not surprising that some individual nations such as Poland and Sweden are forging stronger bilateral arrangements with the US: encouraging and subsidising a US troop presence in return perhaps for buying more US equipment such as the F-35 fighter (at around $100 million each). If Nato is looking fragile and unreliable, and the greatest military power by miles is the US, why not cut out the middleman? This makes some sense, until perhaps the US has to choose between focusing on Russia and focusing on China, and China inevitably wins—to the great disbenefit of both Nato and bilateral arrangements.

European defence efforts outside Nato today are no more than embryonic when compared to the benchmark set by the alliance or potential state opponents. This does serve to reduce the accusation of unnecessary, wasteful duplication, but what if the alliance falls away? Shifting the present EU-centric arrangements up the scale to replace Nato would cost trillions of euros and take at least five years of massive effort to reach parity. Making that shift would mean sacrificing national control of forces and operations, culling national industries, pooling sovereign capabilities such as data, satellites, social media, intelligence and cyber, and agreeing to operational plans that called on some states to make bigger territorial and other sacrifices than others. In the 21st century, the common, existential threat that provoked measures like this could appear far faster than ability to respond. 

Amid potentially existential risks to our security, stability and prosperity, Europe has no automatic immunity to bad outcomes. As the waffle and ambiguity on display at the Munich Security Conference in mid-February illustrated, European governments’ understanding of this complex landscape is (to put it politely) mixed, and the appetite to address it almost absent. The US-backed Nato alliance remains by far the best choice as the cornerstone of our 21st-century defence—but only if it can be revitalised. The steps made so far are nowhere near enough. European-only efforts to do defence better are struggling to rise above tokenism, yet many leaders see even these as the limit of the possible. When our survival is at stake, what is achievable must be driven by what is necessary. If today’s European leaders cannot find the statesmanship to make hard policy and spending choices, we could find that Nato gently dies in its sleep, while European efforts to fill the gap never go beyond baby steps. If collective drift, neglect and wishful thinking then bring Europe into great jeopardy, public fear and outrage will be hard to answer. History will then record that European security in the 21st century failed not because of ignorance or surprise, but from a lack of willpower and competence.   


Russia’s advantage

Russia has refreshed its nuclear and conventional military capability to secure new advantage in technology and readiness. It has invested in state-of-the-art “Anti-Access Aerial Denial” capability such as the S-400 anti-aircraft and missile system with a range of circa 450km, and missiles designed to sink ships at ranges of over 300 km.  These are good enough to, say, dominate the airspace over the Baltic states and keep Nato navies well away from the coast without a massive counter-effort. Russia recognises the implausibility of the sort of general invasion of the West that the Soviet Union aspired to and has adapted its best conventional forces to be capable of rapid, decisive, but localised offensive action. These are most likely to be directed at the parts of the Nato area thought to be better disposed to Russia, or least capable of stirring resistance. Small incursions would clearly breach the Nato Treaty’s Article 5 trigger mechanism, but in a way that may not threaten most Nato members and still require a vast military effort to defeat.

Perhaps most significantly, Russia has recognised the evolving transition in military technology as the 20th-century primacy of manned platforms such as ships, fighter jets and tank fleets gives way to the 21st-century primacy of long-range precision missiles. This includes the modernisation of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe, but it is much more importantly about the development of the conventional ballistic and cruise missiles capable of ranging across most of Europe to deliver perhaps 400kg of high explosive with an accuracy of 2 metres. The Iskander class missiles in Kaliningrad can reach Berlin. As we have seen in Syria, these missiles may be fired in salvoes of perhaps 80 at once, and will shortly include travelling at hypersonic speeds, so a single UK Type 45 destroyer on station with maybe 40 missiles on board is only a modest reassurance. When added to the transparency provided by space-based surveillance (which renders the movement of conventional forces much easier to detect) we are arriving in a phase where the conventional Nato inventory is both diminishing in size and growing in relative obsolescence.