Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from Dr Bastian Giegerich

  1.  This memorandum responds to an invitation to contribute evidence for the Committee to consider in its inquiry into the future of NATO and European defence. It has been written by Dr Bastian Giegerich, Research Associate at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is submitted on an individual basis.


  2.  The Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG) endorsed by NATO Heads of State and Government at the alliance's Riga summit in November 2006, reiterated that NATO is likely to carry out a growing number of relatively small but demanding operations far beyond alliance borders and at short notice. The operational environment that NATO is confronted with is characterised by unpredictability regarding the character, timeline, and location of such operations. Hence, NATO's desired capability profile currently puts a premium on joint expeditionary forces, deployability and sustainability, high readiness forces, information superiority, the ability to draw together different instruments and coordinate with other actors, as well as the general principles of interoperability, adaptability and flexibility. Aside from the likely smaller operations, NATO still needs to retain the ability to conduct large-scale high intensity operations.

  3.  Against this complex background, the assessment of capabilities becomes increasingly difficult. Given the wide variety of operations that NATO forces are being asked to take on, the measurement of capabilities can no longer be purely quantitative, although quantitative data remains a central indicator. In the most basic sense a military capability is the ability to achieve a certain objective. These objectives have become much more fluid in the current operational environment if compared to the traditional understanding of territorial defence.

  4.  Furthermore, the allies judge the importance of these objectives in light of the domestic determinants of their security and defence policy because, by and large, contemporary crisis do not threaten the national sovereignty or survival of alliance members. Therefore, the operations NATO is engaged in are of a discretionary nature in the political sense. From this observation, in turn, follows that the effort NATO governments are willing to undertake will vary from operation to operation and is likely to be limited.

  5.  The ability to achieve objectives, the capability in other words, is a function of equipment, training, ethos, doctrine, and political will. The discretionary nature of contemporary operations makes it difficult for NATO members to generate the necessary political will to achieve their objectives. The fluid nature of operations and objectives makes it difficult to precisely foresee equipment, training, and doctrinal needs.

  6.  Recent operational experience underlines the value of rapid acquisition. Rapid exploitation of technology into fielded equipment is necessary. New major equipment programmes will become less and less frequent, with the capability edge generated by technology insertion into older platforms. The aim across European nations, as acknowledged in the European Defence Agency's Initial Long Term Vision document from October 2006, is to shorten timeframes from innovation to practical implementation.

  7.  The requirements of current operations, first and foremost ISAF in Afghanistan, have revealed several bottlenecks and capabilities shortfalls. In some cases these are being addressed through Urgent Operational Requirements provisions aiming to rapidly field new equipment and technologies. These requirements and the associated costs do not in all cases correspond to long term military transformation goals of NATO member states. In the context of stagnating resource envelopes, this situation increases the pressure on defence budgets. In general, the situation across Europe can be characterised as follows: countries are trying to do more with less. For some allies this suggests an inherent danger of being caught out with inadequate resources between short-term and long-term needs.

  8.  Operational bottlenecks and/or deficiencies have been reported in various fields. They include: strategic and in-theatre lift, sealift, reconnaissance and surveillance, the integration of close-air support, the interoperability of communications systems, information operations, and logistics. These are both equipment and manpower issues. For example, there is a shortfall in both heavy-lift helicopters and maintenance crews. There is also a lack of information operation operatives as well as persisting communication problems even among allies who use the same equipment (radios) due to different software deployed.


  9.  The NATO Response Force (NRF) remains the major vehicle for transformation of allied forces within the framework of NATO. The NRF provides NATO with a high-readiness force package of up to 25,000 troops which can start to deploy after five days notice and can sustain itself for up to 30 days (or longer if re-supplied) anywhere in the world. NATO members amended their NRF pledges during a force generation conference from 21 to 23 November 2006. As a result, the NRF was declared to have reached full operational capability on 29 November during NATO's Riga summit. Additional pledges from Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and the US have helped to fill gaps. Specifically, additional troops, helicopters, transport aircraft, combat support and combat service support have been provided. While strategic command of the NRF is provided by SHAPE, operational command rotates among NATO's Joint Forces Command (JFC) Brunssum, JFC Naples and the Joint Headquarters in Lisbon every twelve months.

  10.  Despite the fact that the NRF has been declared fully operational, several problems persist. Initial-entry operations, at the upper end of the operational spectrum, are still judged to be problematic because certain capabilities shortfalls remain unsolved. The annual joint strategic command study seminar, Exercise "Allied Reach 2007" conducted at Allied Air Component Command Ramstein 2-4 May 2007, pointed again to the challenge that arises when trying to achieve interoperability in the field of communication and information systems (CIS) between NATO allies. Currently, the NATO Communication and Information Systems Service Agency (NCSA) provides the NRF with a solution that is designed around off-the-shelf commercial equipment. This equipment has been used in NRF disaster relief operations in Pakistan as well as during exercise Steadfast Jaguar 2006.

  11.  Furthermore, the funding of NATO operations at this point remains an obstacle to the actual use of the NRF. The "costs lie where they fall" principle means that those countries who happen to be contributors to the NRF when the need for an operation arises have to carry the financial burden almost exclusively. This is a clear political disincentive for the deployment of the NRF. Maintaining a high-readiness force like the NRF is expensive in itself. Not last for this reason, several voices within the alliance have encouraged a "use it or loose it" attitude towards the NRF. This position, sound as it is, overlooks that the idea of the NRF as a tool for frequent intervention runs into political difficulties in a number of NATO member countries. It would therefore be sensible to expect controversial debates if NRF deployments at the upper end of its mission spectrum arise. The intensity of these debates will depend on which allies are "on call" at a particular moment in time.


  12.  In the past, the obligation for many allies was understood to be the sharing of responsibility, for example, for peace on the Balkans. While this is neither a small nor risk free task, the acceptance of risk was underpinned by the acceptance of responsibility for stability in Europe. This sense of responsibility is much weaker when it comes to Afghanistan. Consequently, a problem that would strike at the heart of any military alliance emerged: some allies seem to be unwilling to share the risks whereas others shoulder a substantial load. This has nothing to do with the difference between smaller NATO member states and larger ones, but is a function of domestic constraints.

  13.  NATO commanders in Afghanistan have been plagued by two fundamental problems: a lack of troops and suitable equipment on the one hand and the restrictions (caveats) that are imposed by NATO governments on national contingents deployed to Afghanistan. Both issues, lack of troops/equipment and caveats are serious problems because they restrict the choices commanders have available. When confronted with the task of achieving a certain military objective such as the elimination of a threat posed by a small group of insurgents, a commander has several options including capturing the enemy operatives and aerial bombing of the compound they might be hiding in. On average, low troop levels and caveated contingents will push the commander towards the air strike option. This will lead to more damage, in turn making it more difficult to win the hearts and minds of the local population.

  14.  At the same time it needs to be understood that not even more troops and contingents that come without any restrictions would entirely solve the operational challenges NATO is facing, even with regards to the example just mentioned. While the situation would surely be better, the fact remains that only airpower provides NATO with the ability to strike throughout the area of operations, all of Afghanistan, without significant delay.

  15.  Domestic vulnerabilities and intra-Alliance division are on public display and in Afghanistan NATO is facing an opponent who understands these issues and seeks to exploit them. In addition, ISAF Regional Commanders have pointed out that the Taliban are very skilled at getting information out and reaching a lot of people in Afghanistan. Thereby they achieve a psychological presence that NATO cannot ignore in this setting of complex irregular warfare. The often mentioned problem of winning hearts and minds of the local population in Afghanistan is a psychological element of this warfare that is as important as the physical presence of NATO forces.

  16.  A combination of domestic vulnerabilities and the absence of political leadership lead to dishonest political debates in some NATO member countries. The purpose of military operations, in the case of Afghanistan, is not conveyed adequately and the difficulties and risks involved are not properly explained to the public at home. Given that operations in Afghanistan are extremely complex, difficult, and involve considerable risks, this state of affairs undermines public support for ISAF. NATO forces will encounter problems—they will take casualties and will inflict damage, including collateral damage. If electorates at home have been given the impression that these events are rare exceptions, the mission as such and participation in it will be questioned.

  17.  At the moment there is no true unity of purpose in the sense of a shared understanding of what NATO is doing in Afghanistan and what its major goals are. Member states characterise ISAF as either being about counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, stabilization or reconstruction assistance. The reality is that ISAF is doing all of the above. With all NATO member states, and other partners, involved in ISAF, maintaining unity of purpose is difficult to begin with. However, alliance leaders should work harder to convey a definition of what success in Afghanistan would be and establish a clear means-end relationship.

  18.  NATO capability development needs to be understood in the complex terms outlined above. In the current operational environment, the assessment has become more complex, the provision of capabilities more difficult and more fluid. At the moment it seems that NATO is becoming more creative at meeting equipment needs and dealing with operational challenges (the recent initiatives in the field of strategic airlift, Strategic Airlift Interim Solution, SALIS, and Strategic Airlift Capability, SAC, may serve as examples) than it is at maintaining unity of purpose and providing the political will to maintain the level of ambition necessary to achieve its objectives.

Research Associate,

International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

31 March 2007

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