In fall 2003, NATO held its largest-ever air exercise, one requiring the host nation to close two-thirds of its national airspace. More than 100 airplanes and hundreds of airmen from 15 nations spent two weeks practicing a range of missions, from defense suppression to air-to-air combat.
It is not unusual for NATO’s forces to train for war. It was unusual that the site was Poland—late of the old Warsaw Pact.
Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, observed that it seemed only a short while ago that the pact disintegrated. “So here we are several years later,” Foglesong said, “and I’m attending the largest NATO airmen [exercise] ever—in Poland.”
As events in Poland demonstrate, the pace of change within NATO leaves many shaking their heads in astonishment. New ways of doing business are sweeping through the venerable 55-year-old military alliance.
At the heart of the change is a single requirement, which was summed up by Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, in this way: “Today’s multifaceted world requires operational capabilities that are more agile, mobile, responsive, and expeditionary.”
The Response Force
Nowhere is the change more evident than in NATO’s pursuit of a new kind of integrated, expeditionary military force.
For a half-century, NATO restricted military activity to self-defense within the defined treaty area—the soil of member countries. So-called “out-of-area” operations were rejected, as was any notion of building forces suited to carry them out.
Now, however, under prodding from Washington, NATO is creating an integrated, rotational “spearhead,” known as the NATO Response Force, to take action in world hotspots if and when needed. It would comprise top military personnel equipped with cutting-edge weapons and other systems.
NATO endorsed the concept of the Response Force at the 2002 summit in Prague, after it had been broached by US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had warned, “If NATO does not have a force that is quick and agile, which can deploy in days or weeks instead of months or years, then it will not have much to offer the world in the 21st century.”
Member nations are to provide the military assets. Plans call for the NRF to be able to deploy within five days of a “go” order and sustain itself for up to 30 days. The mission could range from major combat all the way down to peacekeeping or humanitarian action.
As currently envisioned, the new force would ultimately comprise 21,000 troops and be able to conduct air, land, or sea operations. It is to have its own logistics, communications, and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Its leadership would rotate among NATO commands in Europe.
Military planners hope to have the full, brigade-sized joint force ready for action no later than October 2006.
According to Foglesong, the NRF’s air component will be able to generate up to 200 combat, lift, and support sorties per day. He explained that NATO will set a force goal for a particular NRF rotation and that allied nations will be asked to contribute forces to meet the goal.
Contributions will differ, obviously. Some countries might offer fighters, others transports, still others support aircraft. Once the nations make offers, evaluation teams will certify whether the forces are ready to take part in an NRF.
The NRF will not be a permanent standing force. It will be rotational, having a six-month period of unit training followed by a six-month “on call” period.
USAF Gen. Charles F. Wald, deputy commander of US European Command, believes the NRF will be a very different undertaking for the allies.
“The nations that provide the force are actually going to have to give that force to NATO for that period of time,” Wald explained. “It is not going to just be on the books. It is not going to be just on paper. It will actually be under the command of NATO, a common commander. They will actually train together. … This force will actually move; it could move out of theater for training.”
Jones said the alliance is making progress on the NRF project. However, he added, the effort cannot succeed unless the allies are able to overcome what surely will be major command and control problems.
As the alliance military chief warned at a recent Berlin conference: “We have got to get beyond the point where commanders spend most of the time trying to work out what they cannot do instead of what they can do.”
The NATO Response Force is the clear vehicle for NATO transformation in the 21st century, Jones went on to say at an alliance conference in Europe last fall.
Earlier this year, Jones explained that the NRF had become “a reality.” It is in its third rotation and growing in terms of capability and quality. It has grown to be an integrated force of 17,000 troops—comprising air, land, sea, and special operations forces.
“For the first time in NATO’s history,” he said, the allies will be “able to deploy and operate as an expeditionary force … on a global scale.”
With the NRF on hand, the NATO writ could run quite far.
According to Royal Navy Adm. Ian Garnett, chief of staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe: “We have one NATO area of responsibility (AOR). That is clearly defined. … I would also say that NATO has what I term an area of interest, which actually, through the Partnership for Peace program, goes all the way to the Chinese border and well into North Africa.”
Rumsfeld, addressing NATO defense ministers in June in Istanbul, declared the NRF to be ready for its first mission. “Now the task is to use it,” the Pentagon chief said. “There’s no use having it unless you use it.”
Going “Out of Area”
Almost as unusual as the Response Force effort is NATO’s willingness to actually take action beyond NATO boundaries.
In the 1990s, the alliance began inching away from its self-imposed ban on out-of-area operations. US-led NATO forces in 1995 conducted a brief air campaign in Bosnia and another, bigger air war over Serbia. Both operations, while not in defense of NATO territory, nonetheless remained within Europe.
Now, however, NATO has for the first time conducted a military operation beyond European borders—in Afghanistan.
NATO’s primary contribution has been heading a 6,500-troop International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) composed of NATO forces and those of other, non-NATO allied nations. The mission is sanctioned by the United Nations. NATO started by providing ground troops to enhance security in the capital of Kabul.
Last fall, the UN voted to move ISAF beyond the relatively safe confines of Kabul and provide security throughout the nation. NATO has aided that expansion by taking over some US-led reconstruction operations.
Rebuilding operations are being carried out by provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). Each such unit has as many as 150 troops deployed to provinces throughout Afghanistan to manage reconstruction. PRTs conduct presence patrols in local villages, hire local contractors to rebuild infrastructure, oversee the creation of health care, legal, and banking systems, and respond to sudden humanitarian crises.
NATO forces led by Germany took over a PRT in the town of Kunduz. Four other PRTs in northern Afghanistan were expected to come under NATO’s command over the next several months.
“It’s a way of having the effects of the transitional government and Karzai Administration felt and reflected outside the capital city—and that’s a good thing,” Rumsfeld said during one visit to Afghanistan.
The NATO force in Afghanistan has been largely cobbled together from whatever troops members could provide. The force is not involved in combat; at present, some 13,500 US troops handle antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, USAFE has played a supporting role by providing airlift. Ramstein AB, Germany, has served as a main logistics hub for moving troops and supplies into the region. Since war began in October 2001, the Air Force has flown 30,000 airlift missions into Afghanistan, transporting 418,000 passengers and 489,000 tons of supplies. “We are the big dog when it comes to strategic lift,” said Foglesong.
Rumsfeld had hoped that NATO might eventually take over some security operations. According to Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., it won’t be easy to convince NATO to take a combat role.
“There’s still a great deal of discomfort in NATO with being a player outside of Europe,” Smith said.
That discomfort was fully on display at NATO’s summit last June in Istanbul, an event which showed NATO’s commitment was starting to flag badly. The NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, appealed to alliance member states to provide more forces to help secure Afghanistan in the run-up elections. After weeks of pleading, he got commitments for only a few helicopters.
The goals and actions of the Western alliance also have been strongly affected by changes in its own composition.
NATO membership has expanded from 16 members in 1998 to 26 today, with the growth coming from the accession of East European nations that once were within the orbit of the Soviet Union.
United States Air Force units and other NATO airmen now regularly train with former Warsaw Pact nations. This is viewed as a growth area for the US Air Force.
Foglesong’s travel itinerary this past spring says a lot about the attraction of Eastern Europe for American planners. In March, he was in Ukraine (not a NATO member) discussing increased cooperation. In April, Foglesong traveled to Slovakia to welcome it into the alliance. In May, he was back in Poland to observe Poland’s testing of its newly acquired F-16 fighters.
“We’re looking south and east,” he said. “That makes sense.”
The Defense Department sees Eastern Europe and other formerly Soviet dominated areas as potential sites for an austere network of standby installations that could be used for rapid projection of US power. The “lily pad” bases would have caretaker crews and pre-positioned equipment that a larger force could use in a crisis. Forces would regularly rotate through the bases for training exercises.
Foglesong said the new Eastern NATO allies offer fewer restrictions on use of airspace and fewer environmental barriers.
According to the USAFE commander, the US will still have “enduring bases” in Western Europe—for example, Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Bases in Germany. “You wouldn’t want to get to the point in Europe where you only had one hub,” he said.
Foglesong also emphasized that the new bases would likely require significant investment to accommodate US forces.
Decline of the West
Inevitably, however, the transformation of NATO—and the relationship of the US to Europe—will have an impact on force deployments there.
President George W. Bush announced recently that the US would move thousands of troops out of traditional cantonments in Europe even as it establishes new air bases farther east and south.
Within the decade, Washington will withdraw roughly 65,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines from both Europe and Asia and move them home to US bases. The US currently has 100,000 troops in Europe, including two heavy divisions in Germany, and about 100,000 troops in Asia, among them nearly 40,000 troops in Korea.
The Army will recall the two divisions from Germany and return them to the United States.
The realignment, which begins in late 2006, will unfold over most of a decade. Bush said the new global force structure would allow troops to deploy more rapidly to meet new threats.
In the President’s words: “America’s current force posture was designed … to protect us and our allies from Soviet aggression. The threat no longer exists.”
USAFE, headquartered at Ramstein, won’t be radically affected by the change in force deployment. The command began its transformation long ago—in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
By the end of the decade, USAFE’s former complement of 60,000 airmen had been cut to 30,000, its former fleet of 850 aircraft had been chopped to 220, and its once sprawling base structure had been reduced to five major facilities. At present it has only 2.5 fighter wing equivalents.
NATO, formed in 1949, is the most successful military alliance in history. The statesmen who created it long ago would not recognize today’s version. If NATO continues on its current course, today’s version soon will be gone, too.
George Cahlink is a military correspondent with Government Executive Magazine in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Better ‘Blue Force’ Tracking,” appeared in the June issue.