NATO, Version 2.0

Sept. 1, 2007

The knee-high weeds and wild dogs that one sees today at Romania’s “MK” air base probably also were there during the Cold War, but the presence of American transports and French fighters would have been unthinkable.

These days, the sight of foreign NATO aircraft is becoming something like the norm on the airfields of former Warsaw Pact nations.

The Atlantic alliance has embraced 10 new members which were, in one form or another, part of the communist East. Through expansion, integration, and joint training and exercises, they have become full NATO members.

It was in 2004, during the last round of expansion, that Romania joined the alliance. So it was that, this June, American and French aircraft arrived at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, near Constanta. They and their crews coexisted peacefully with nearby Romanian MiG-21s, holdovers from the nation’s Warsaw Pact days, along with Romanian transport aircraft and Puma helicopters. Then, to make matters even stranger, USAF’s Thunderbirds showed up.

The alliance today bears no resemblance to the NATO that existed only a few years ago, and not just because its membership list has grown. NATO is actively engaged in a critical out-of-area mission in Afghanistan. It is finally making some true progress toward closing long-standing gaps in capability. And it has vastly simplified its command structure.

The new allies are fully integrated into NATO planning, training exercises, and combat operations. They are working to throw off Soviet-style military practices and modernize their methods and equipment.

The 10 new members formerly constituted the heartland of communist Eastern Europe. Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were theoretically independent members of the Warsaw Pact. The Czech Republic and Slovakia, united as Czechoslovakia, also were within the pact. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were Soviet republics. Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia.

Romania has stepped up to its obligation as few have done. Every NATO exercise at MK offers an opportunity for Romanian Air Force personnel to master alliance tactics, techniques, and procedures, noted Lt. Commander Adrian Vasile, the Mihail Kogalniceanu installation commander. NATO integration allows for “better training of personnel at every level, in every position, no matter how minor,” he said. Everything from force protection to the planning of air combat training is regularly done in conjunction with NATO forces.

“This is only the beginning,” predicted Vasile, who foresaw that the Romanian Air Force would continue to increase its hosting of multinational exercises.

The relationship is mutually beneficial, as the alliance is making return investments. In Romania, recent infrastructure improvements at MK include a NATO-funded parking ramp for a dozen fighters, and taxiway and runway improvements.

The communist legacy persists, but the eastern allies are everywhere trying to throw off the rigid military establishments of the past. Bulgaria, for example, has cut the size of its armed forces from 110,000 to 39,000 troops in the past 15 years, said Bulgarian Army Col. Evgeniy Peshev. The force, which this year is finally ending conscription, will probably go down to 25,000 troops and will be completely professionalized, Peshev said.

Geographic No More

This transition has been difficult for the former pact nations. The reductions have eliminated hundreds of thousands of military jobs across Europe. This kind of transformation, however, must go forward if the countries are to upgrade their forces.

Bulgaria has an ambitious list of modernization goals, which includes a need for a fleet of new multirole fighter aircraft. “NATO guarantees Bulgaria’s security,” Peshev noted, allowing the nation to focus on transformation efforts.

Fighters are a hot commodity for the new NATO nations. Romania’s air force, for example, is looking for a new multirole fighter to replace its ancient (but recently upgraded) MiG-21s. The nation is looking to purchase something along the lines of 48 F-16s, Swedish Gripens, or EADS Eurofighters.

Romania needs to modernize its entire military, but it doesn’t have the money to do so. Even these fourth generation fighters will be hard to finance. They also will pose a technical challenge for an air force experienced only with obsolete MiG-21s.

Poland’s air force has embarked on a major purchase of 48 advanced F-16s. The Czech Republic and Hungary both selected the Gripen for their fighter modernization programs.

The more advanced NATO militaries are preparing to equip their air forces with the US-built F-35. Besides the US, eight NATO members are buying the Lightning II. The Eurofighter also has several committed backers among NATO nations.

Air defense has increased in importance. NATO’s common defense philosophy requires other states to provide air defense for smaller states such as the three Baltic nations. Air Force Gen. William T. Hobbins, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, maintains that NATO still suffers from a “dog’s breakfast” of command and control. Even so, said Hobbins, the alliance has proved that it can effectively perform this air policing mission in an area where overflight can take place in as little as 20 minutes.

Romania assumes there is “no threat of large scale invasion,” said ROAF Col. Constantin Raileanu, national liaison to NATO’s transformation command. The country is in a “good neighborhood,” he said, allowing it to focus on modernization, meeting NATO standards, and asymmetric threats such as terrorism. Romania ended conscription this January.

Within the alliance, there exists constant tension between ambitions and finances. NATO members have an agreed-upon goal that each nation will devote two percent of annual gross domestic product to defense, but only seven of the 26 nations actually meet the target. They are the United States, Britain, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Romania, and Turkey. Six others spend less than 1.3 percent of GDP.

The budget squeeze has consequences. In 1999, when NATO launched Operation Allied Force in Serbia, not all the nations had secure voice communications. “We found ourselves operating at night, having to talk on clear radios, which means the enemy can listen to you if he chooses to do it,” said Smith.

The groundwork for the 21st century NATO was laid at the 2002 Prague summit in the Czech Republic. There, allied leaders finally took decisive action to address long-standing problems of deployability, strategic mobility, air-to-ground surveillance, and more. Plans for the NATO Response Force became official.

In 2003, NATO dropped its often-confusing Cold War command arrangements. All operations are now overseen at Mons, Belgium, by Allied Command Operations, which is headed by US Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Craddock also serves as the commander of US European Command.

NATO also has one functional command—Allied Command Transformation, at Norfolk, Va., led by USAF Gen. Lance L. Smith. NATO now runs training and combat coordination through headquarters in Brunssum, Netherlands, and Naples, Italy. A smaller headquarters can be found in Lisbon, Portugal.

Reporting to these headquarters are land-, sea-, and air-component headquarters, with the air centers located at Ramstein, Germany, and Izmir, Turkey. The centers no longer artificially divide missions up by geographic area. The command structure may seem elaborate, but is simple compared to the Cold War model. NATO once had 65 distinct headquarters. It now has 11.

When NATO commanders ask for troops or equipment, the newest members “are there, ready to help in any way that they can,” said Smith. “They are setting an example for many of us.”

Now Operational

These plans are now beginning to bear fruit and have given NATO new purpose. The NATO Response Force, for example, has deployed twice since reaching initial operational capability in 2004. In September 2005, NRF units deployed to the United States to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The following month, NRF assets went to Pakistan to provide aid after a devastating earthquake.

The NRF became fully operational last year. It now has 25,000 combat troops ready to deploy within five days and able to operate in a sustained fashion for 30 days without resupply. The system is reminiscent of USAF’s air and space expeditionary forces, as NRFs operate on a rotating schedule with designated training periods and deployment windows.

Forces include a brigade-sized land force capable of forced entry, maritime units with a carrier battle group, and combat air forces able to fly a full range of missions with up to 200 combat sorties per day.

NRF forces have not, however, yet seen combat. Though NATO forces are heavily engaged in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission is separate. ISAF is a “coalition of the willing,” handled by individual Allies and not by the NATO-wide response force, or even the 15-nation NATO AWACS unit. By June, ISAF had 37 nations (including non-NATO members) with 35,500 troops in-country. Some put forth token forces, but 26 nations have committed more than 100 troops to the mission.

“The alliance has changed its level of ambition,” said Smith.

Indeed, NATO’s most recent official handbook states that the alliance “should not be constrained by predetermined geographical limits; it must have the capacity to act as and where required.” It goes on to say that, in 2002, NATO “crossed the Rubicon by stating that it was prepared to engage in operations beyond its traditional area of responsibility.” Just a few years earlier, even the decision to go to war in the Balkans—next door to Greece and Italy—had been controversial.

Retired Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, a former SACEUR, said in 2003 that one of 9/11’s legacies was that it “put to bed that argument that a threat to a NATO country has to originate in the country immediately adjacent to its border.” NATO’s Afghanistan mission is helping, “albeit indirectly,” to put an end to terrorist activity, the handbook states.

NATO took over responsibility for the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in 2003, and the mission is now the alliance’s No. 1 priority. Over the past three years, NATO has systematically spread its forces throughout Afghanistan, moving into the most dangerous regions last year.

“We’ve seen in the southern and the eastern regions a much fiercer resistance than we had expected,” said Canadian Air Force Gen. Ray Henault, chief of NATO’s military committee.

The mission is “very difficult,” said a US Army colonel at NATO’s operational command in Brunssum, which runs the operation. An RAF general there described the responsibilities as 20 percent military and 80 percent other, such as providing the ability for judges to govern under the rule of law, and for reconstruction projects to take place unhindered.

In 2006, “it became clear that the Taliban had prepared a defensive position” along the main highway west of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, British Gen. David Richards, former ISAF commander, wrote in NATO Review. “Their intent was to take Kandahar, which would have damaged President Karzai’s government irreparably.” NATO attacked with a brigade-sized operation, and “the Taliban suffered a comprehensive tactical defeat, despite reinforcing their position.”

ISAF moved into the rest of the country shortly thereafter, and the Taliban was forced to change its tactics. “They have not held ground defensively since,” Richards said, and instead have turned to an Iraq-style insurgency.

This poses its own problems. NATO is now dealing with an enemy sowing disorder and disruption, actively seeking civilian casualties for propaganda value. “We don’t want to lose the faith and confidence of the Afghan people,” Craddock said.

The crucible of Afghanistan has served to jump-start NATO transformation efforts. ISAF participants “see the requirement,” said Smith, and “they’re making an investment in the war, so certainly they’re further along because of Afghanistan than they would have been without it.”

The need for interoperability, always a concern in NATO, has been driven home by ISAF. The alliance can generate plenty of combat power, said British Army Lt. Col. Stephen Turpin of the ACT staff. The problem is in building an interoperable force that can fight together effectively and efficiently.

Exponential Difficulty

ACT commander Smith, who also heads US Joint Forces Command, said the problem is a big one. “It is difficult enough to get four services interoperable,” he noted. “In NATO, take that and multiply by 26 nations.”

Getting everyone to use the same systems is out of the question, whether it is radios, command and control systems, or fighters. Nations make independent investment decisions and favor domestically produced systems. Standards are important—one partial solution is simply to get allies to build to NATO specs and standards.

Another way to provide common capability is through teaming arrangements. One of the priorities coming out of Prague in 2002 was for “greater emphasis on multinational commitments and pooling of funds,” says a report by the Congressional Research Service. This is seen in a variety of lift and surveillance initiatives.

Now on the books is a multinational arrangement for a new Alliance Ground Surveillance system. AGS will provide a NATO-owned-and-operated, Joint STARS-like ground surveillance capability to match its air control AWACS force. The program of record calls for the alliance to purchase a mixed fleet of four Airbus A321 aircraft and four unmanned “Euro Hawk” reconnaissance drones. The fleet would become operational in 2013.

All signs are that the manned portion of the program may fall off, however, turning AGS into a Global Hawk-only platform. In the meantime, USAF E-8s are providing ground surveillance capability to the NATO Response Force.

NATO’s Joint Airpower Competence Center studied the long-standing shortage of strategic airlift capacity in the alliance and determined that neither the C-130 nor the C-160 can carry the majority of the equipment necessary for a full NRF deployment.

The JAPCC, overseen by Hobbins, is NATO’s in-house airpower think tank. According to the center’s analysis, nearly 60 percent of an NRF’s total equipment could not fit into a C-130 or C-160 and would therefore require the use of a C-17, C-5, or the lease of an An-124 to get to a combat theater.

As a stopgap solution, a consortium of 16 nations is chartering six Russian and Ukrainian An-124 transports. Two of the Antonovs already are on full-time charter, and the consortium members will fly the aircraft a minimum of 2,000 hours per year. The aircraft have already delivered NATO supplies as far as Afghanistan.

For the midterm, 15 alliance members plus Finland and Sweden will purchase and operate at least three and possibly four C-17 transports. They will be operated and maintained at a NATO base in Europe, by multinational crews, under an international command structure.

Ramstein shapes up to be the most likely base for this transport fleet. However, Hobbins said, other locations are still under consideration. The first of the C-17s will be in service next year.

The US and Britain already operate C-17s, and Canada is purchasing four, but the prop-driven Airbus A400M is expected to be NATO’s primary long-term airlift solution. Seven allies will buy 180 A400Ms, beginning in 2009. JAPCC noted that the A400M can move outsize (too large for a C-130) equipment, but it will be about 10 years before the aircraft is available “in good numbers.” Marshall S. Billingslea, chief of defense investment for NATO, said strategic airlift represents “a gap that I would suspect is going to be impossible to ever fully close.”

NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control Force is a model for many of the multinational arrangements the alliance is establishing.

At NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany, a fleet of 17 E-3A aircraft are collectively owned and operated by the 15 members of the alliance. The AWACS mission arose when it became clear that ground-based radars could not defend NATO against low-flying Warsaw Pact jet aircraft. To date, the E-3A force is NATO’s only flying unit. The aircraft are registered by Luxembourg, which has no air force of its own.

The US, Britain, and France also fly E-3s, with the British component based in England but functioning as part of the NATO command structure. The AWACS fly regularly—and increasingly—from forward operating locations in Greece, Italy, Norway, and Turkey.

The E-3A fleet became operational in 1982 and soon will complete a “NATO Midterm” conversion with improved mission systems and avionics.

“Ideally, every NATO member should be part of this,” said USAF Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Schmidt, commander of the E-3A Component. Although there are cultural and training difficulties in running a multinational force, greater participation strengthens the alliance, Schmidt said, adding that Poland and Hungary recently joined the E-3A team, and Romania and the Czech Republic are “very interested.”

Time for Training

Of the 15 nations at Geilenkirchen, however, only the US flies its own E-3s, noted Lt. Col. Jim Casey, commander of Squadron 1 at the base. Maj. Chris Hansen, an E-3A pilot, added that no more than 40 percent of the crew on any given flight is American, and Germany actually has the largest personnel component at the base.

Several officials expressed the desire to have personnel assigned to Geilenkirchen for periods longer than the typical 3.5-year tour. It takes significant time to train for the mission and master the nuances of working on an international flight crew. A three-year assignment is “not sufficient time” for airmen who haven’t already served on a 707-based platform, said Canadian Air Force Col. Manfred Arndt, commander of the E-3A Operations Wing.

Overall, however, having the nations working together on the AWACS is “a strength” said Schmidt. It creates a cohesive team that can include officers from Greece and Turkey working side by side on real-world missions.

The fleet provides warning and control on a regular basis. Aircraft helped defend the United States after 9/11, provided coverage over Turkey in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and defended the skies over the 2006 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia.

Missions are becoming more tactical. Portions of the E-3A Component are permanently assigned to the NRF, and the aircraft can even detect surface-to-air missile sites.

Mastering close air support and time critical targeting missions has increased in importance in recent years. Arndt is pushing for a change to four-year assignments for non-707 nations, to better meet the increasing demands.

The JAPCC think tank is now looking to build a C4ISR roadmap so NATO can make full use of its upgraded E-3s, planned AGS systems, and related capabilities. The center is also finalizing an unmanned aerial vehicle flight plan to overcome the same problems the US military is having in rationalizing haphazard unmanned aircraft planning and operations.

Even though NATO has been working the issue since 1999, the alliance still lacks a formal UAV concept of operations or proper doctrine, said USAF Col. R.D. Clampitt, JAPCC staff director. Direction is needed because there has been an “explosion” in the number of systems in use, Clampitt said, and demand is only expected to grow. Fifteen of NATO’s 26 militaries have unmanned aircraft—meaning 11 do not.

This highlights another problem the alliance has long striven to overcome: the technological gap between NATO’s haves and have-nots. George Robertson, formerly secretary general of the alliance, once railed against trends toward NATO having a “precision class” of wealthy, well-armed nations and a “bleeding class” comprising all of the others.

Like every other problem the alliance takes on, however, this is not easy to fix. The capabilities gap is real and may never go away completely. The United States, Britain, and a few other nations are forging ahead, Smith noted, and they are not going to slow down just so other NATO members can catch up.