At its July summit in Vilnius NATO will take a step forward, when leaders are expected to adopt tens of thousands of pages of classified military plans that, for the first time since the Cold War, outline how the alliance would respond to an assault from Russia.
With smaller conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the conviction that post-Soviet Russia no longer constituted an existential threat, NATO had not felt the need to develop extensive defense plans for decades. The move represents a significant shift in that regard.
However, the alliance is now cautioning that it must have all planning in a place far before a fight with a major opponent such as Moscow might erupt because Europe’s bloodiest war since 1945 is raging just beyond its borders in Ukraine.
“The fundamental difference between crisis management and collective defense is this: It is not we but our adversary who determines the timeline. We have to prepare for the fact that conflict can present itself at any time.”Admiral Rob Bauer, NATO’s top military official.
NATO will provide nations with direction on how to modernize their armed forces and logistics by presenting what it refers to as its regional plans.
About the highly-classified documents that would, like in the Cold War, allocate specific troops to the defense of certain regions, NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg said, “Allies will know exactly what forces and capabilities are needed, including where, what, and how to deploy.”
This formalizes a process that was sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which led to the first deployment of combat troops by Western partners to the East, with Britain, Canada, and Germany each taking the lead in one of the Baltic states.
NOT A COLD WAR REPLAY
However, even though many aspects reflect NATO’s military configuration before 1990, other important aspects have altered for the alliance, which has since extended by around 1,000 km (600 miles) to the east and increased in size from about a dozen to 31 members.
Since Finland joined NATO last month, the alliance’s border with Russia has increased by almost 2,500 km, necessitating a more flexible deployment strategy than in the past when Germany was considered to be the major theater of operations.
Additionally, according to Ian Hope, a historian at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the alliance is no longer preparing for large-scale nuclear conflict with Moscow and its allies, the majority of whom are currently NATO members.
He remarked, “We don’t envision the type of war that the Cold War was, where allied forces… would be hit simultaneously with large-scale Warsaw Pact attacks,” pointing instead to regionalized wars that required to be managed by swift force deployments.
New difficulties are also presented by the internet, drones, hypersonic weapons, and the quick flow of information.
“The good news is that we talk about the transparency of the battlefield. With all the satellites, with all the intel we’re able to see a maturing crisis. For Ukraine, we had all the indicators quite in advance.”Lieutenant General Hubert Cottereau, SHAPE’s Vice Chief of Staff.
Due in part to this openness, NATO does not feel the immediate need to increase force levels in the east as the Baltic states have demanded.
“Having more troops massed on the border is like having a hammer,” said the speaker. You need to find a nail at some point, Cottereau said. “If the Russians are massing troops on the border, that will make us nervous, and if we are massing troops on the border, that will make them nervous.”
Significantly increasing readiness will be a difficult undertaking. In 2022, NATO decided to increase the number of troops on high alert from 40,000 to 300,000.
The battle to meet Ukraine’s demands has brought to light gaps in the alliance’s ability to produce enough arms and ammunition; additionally, NATO must update the long-neglected infrastructure required to rapidly deploy troops by rail or road.
One of the reasons Stoltenberg has urged leaders to increase the alliance’s military budget target is the necessity of funding the execution of the regional plans.