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NATO in Europe needs 'military Schengen' to rival Russia

Teri Schultz Brussels
September 12, 2017

NATO has reformed its military capabilities to be able to deploy forces much more quickly. But could leftover Cold War bureaucracy prevent a rapid response? NATO General Ben Hodges told DW he wants a "military Schengen."

US-General Frederick B. Hodges
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Kalnina

With an unverifiable number of Russian soldiers preparing to practice war against fictional Western countries in so-called "Zapad" exercises, the US general in charge of the US military in Europe, Ben Hodges, recently spoke with DW about the differences between his ability to summon forces quickly and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"[Putin] is able to move a lot of stuff real fast which is what got my attention and made me start thinking, how do we achieve at least the same speed that he has," Hodges explained. PreviousZapad drills, which are held every four years, honed the Russian ability to launch the massive "snap exercises" seen ahead of the invasion of Crimea in 2014, and earlier, the aggression against Georgia in 2008.

Read more:Things to know about international military exercises

When Hodges, on the other hand, wants to move tanks or other heavy vehicles and weaponry across Europe, he needs to stop at every national - sometimes regional - border and deal with unique controls.

Troops jump out of helicopter during Zapad in 2013
Zapad 2013 ended with a mock nuclear strike against Sweden, NATO says.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Druginyn

"I think most people would be astounded to find out what we have to do," he said, "to submit a list of all the vehicles, the drivers, what's in every truck - which they don't do with gigantic commercial trucks moving back and forth across borders." 

He says in many European countries, it takes weeks to get the permission to move through. In Germany every state requires its own procedure. 

NATO hampered by red tape

It means, Hodges fears, that it wouldn't matter if NATO's new "very high readiness task force" were at "very very very very" high readiness to be deployed for a crisis - it simply couldn't slog through the red tape fast enough to effectively counter an acute threat anywhere on its periphery.

Read more: Zapad games - what does Russia want?

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), the alliance's top military executive, does have some enhanced powers to speed up the process if the threat is urgent enough, but that wouldn't circumvent national rules and it doesn't by any means bring the continent up to what could be considered a "military Schengen zone."

That's the catch-phrase used to describe what Hodges would like to see Europe do for military travel, to bring down border bureaucracy to something emulating the visa-free system agreed to by 22 European Union states along with four other European countries.

NATO doesn't use the term "military Schengen zone" because it feels that excludes allies that are not part of Schengen. The Baltic states, which are on the potential frontline of any Russian overstep, are backing Hodges' call.

But even a reduction in border bureaucracy wouldn't be enough; there are many unresolved questions about issues as diverse as how resources at, for example, Deutsche Bahn could be shared or how much weight and width some of Europe's old roadways could withstand.

Hodges feels Europeans have not adequately considered the limitations they are allowing to exist. He wants a procedure created Europe-wide that would grant NATO movements within 48 hours.

Soldiers sitting on tank
The waiting game - red tape affects NATO troop movementsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Bielecki/PAP

One military official from a NATO country who declined to be identified agreed with Hodges that the current system is untenable. "It's not out of the ordinary that another country wants to know where you are and where you will be and they will want to give you certain routes through the country," the official explained.

"But at the moment it just takes way too long. It will never be like the real Schengen area where you just enter another country obviously, because you are carrying dangerous goods or things like that,  but it can be much much much simpler which will allow us to deploy more rapidly."

Dutch demand NATO-EU cooperate

The Dutch government has taken the first public step toward demanding changes.  In June, Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert wrote to both NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini insisting the "obstacles to cross-border military transport in Europe must disappear".

Hennis-Plasschaert urges NATO and the EU to step up cooperation on this matter. "The alliance has expertise and experience in military transport, while the EU has jurisdiction in customs matters and the transport of hazardous substances," she wrote.

The European Defense Agency (EDA), which coordinates the EU's defense cooperation, has been tasked with taking the lead on this and things are finally moving with more haste. 

An EDA official, who spoke with DW on the condition of anonymity, explained the agency has asked EU governments to formally identify where the holdups are within their own territory, be it crumbling roads or 10-day waits for permission. Next year the EDA aims to produce a report, drawing in both NATO and EU authorities. The Dutch ambition is to actually have the problems "resolved" within a year, though EDA is not committing to a strict timeline.

Hodges: 48-hour maximum delay

One of those solutions crafted by EDA is expected to be, as Hodges desires, a standardized form used by all European countries for granting permission for military transport quickly - not quickly by the standards Putin enjoys to move rapidly across Russia, but certainly more rapidly than Europe's situation today.

The military official acknowledges perhaps this should have happened earlier along with other enhancements NATO has made, but explains that it just hasn't been treated as a priority. But now, he says, it's time to "do the homework". 

"Basically we've already enhanced the NATO response force, saying...at least the spearhead of the force can deploy within a couple of days," he said. "We're doing that because of Russia's change in posture. [What] we're doing now is to make sure that we can actually do it in every situation."