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Is NATO's latest military plan feasible?

Teri Schultz Brussels
June 25, 2018

"Ready or not?" A new US initiative demands that within two years, NATO allies will keep thousands of highly-equipped troops on constant call. Teri Schultz looks at the plan's feasibility.

Litauen, NATO Militärübung im Baltikum
Image: picture-alliance/M.Kulbis

Discussions between EU foreign ministers and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about removing barriers to military movements across Europe are picking up steam ahead of next month's NATO summit. But highly-publicized concerns about those difficulties  may actually be the least of NATO's worries in its new "European Readiness Initiative" — dubbed the"Four Thirties." The pledge: by 2020 NATO nations will be able to deploy 30 battalions, 30 battleships and 30 air squadrons within 30 days or less.

The plan was born out of a request US Defense Secretary James Mattis made to allies last fall along with demands for higher spending. The goal is to plug a perceived gap in NATO's response capability — and therefore its credibility — between the time that existing "very high readiness" and "initial follow-on" forces address the early stages of a crisis, and subsequent developments.

Under heavy US pressure, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has asked for a steep increase in her budget to make up for years of under-investment. Still, Germany is not expected to come close to the NATO-mandated spending threshold of 2 percent of GDP by 2024, as pledged by all allies in 2014.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis (left) has been putting pressure on Germany to increase its military readinessImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/J. Büttner

"(W)e need that because we have a more unpredictable security environment, we have to be prepared for the unforeseen," Stoltenberg explained as defense ministers endorsed the agreement in early June. "I am also absolutely certain that we will deliver now on the new promise."

Tallying and rallying troops and tanks

Others aren't so confident. Deploying 30 battalions — a unit whose exact size varies by country — would potentially mean upwards of 15,000 troops, their equipment and transport vehicles rushing to a hotspot, sailing across bureaucracy-filled borders, slipping through too-tight tunnels and barreling over weak bridges that currently hang up military movements. 

Alice Billon-Galland, a policy fellow with the European Leadership Network (ELN), told DW she's highly skeptical. "Putting aside the fact that it would be really hard to move those troops around Europe, what are you going to move in the first place? It's a bit useless to have a bridge that is large enough to deploy a tank if you don't have a tank and you don't have troops to put on that tank. And in terms of troops you know the state of the Bundeswehr and basically most European armies are virtually not deployable for collective defense today."

Tom Goffus, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO, has long been working on US-NATO issues and agrees with Billon-Galland on the capabilities gap. "It's actually, on the front end, having NATO command-and-control capability to move chess pieces around the board," Goffus explained at an EU-US conference. "But the second piece is having chess pieces that are ready to be moved. We've had a readiness crisis for a while and a readiness crisis is a symptom of under-investment."

Infografik Probleme Bundeswehr Deutschland EN

Forces few and far between

In his article "The Abilities of the British, French, and German Armies to Generate and Sustain Armored Brigades in the Baltics," RAND Political Scientist Michael Shurkin laid bare shortcomings that could well trip up the new initiative before the 30-day clock even starts ticking. A brigade is typically three to six battalions, so for comparison's sake, the "European Readiness Initiative" envisions mustering and deploying the strength of five to 10 brigades within a month.

Shurkin found all three countries would face significant delays or difficulties if called upon to produce multiple battalions that quickly. Britain was best-equipped, most likely able to assemble a full armored brigade within 30 to 90 days and to sustain it indefinitely. France is already overstretched, Shurkin concluded, and while Paris "probably" could come up with one battalion within a week and a brigade within a few weeks, the effort would be a significant strain and troops "might be ill-prepared to fight the Russians."

Stammtisch - the state of Germany's defense

Germany, noted Shurkin, only had "two battalions with the necessary modern equipment that would make them worthy of facing the Russians." And while those could be mustered within a week, he said, to come up with more troops, the German military would have to "strip other units of equipment" which would limit its ability to conduct other operations in the meantime.

Shurkin's review doesn't even address challenges in moving those units around but US military officials have been vocal about their frustration with, in particular, German bureaucracy, which conceivably could be altered more quickly than infrastructure.

Pentagon's patience is shot

Goffus said a common attitude is that "people think 'well, in case of war of course everybody will let tanks through the gate.'" He underscored that's not something military planners can take for granted. "What we want to do is make this regular, make this [during] peacetime to make us capable of doing things that give credibility to a reinforcement strategy for major combat forces."

But Billon-Galland questioned why the US pressed for, and allies agreed to, announcing the initiative now with such a tight timeline. She said it's logical to "try to force the hand of Europeans to get more active when it comes to high readiness" which is an indisputable problem. But she pointed out, "it's also a risky move because if by 2020 this is a big joke because they can [only] get together 10 battalions in 45 days then it doesn't really look good for the alliance either."

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