By Kamil Szubart

On Nov. 8-9, 2017, NATO defense ministers met in Brussels to discuss the current security threats to NATO member states. Politicians agreed to reshape the NATO command structure and to boost the size of Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan. Both decisions are forward steps in adapting the Alliance to the new strategic challenges in Europe and Afghanistan. In Europe—ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of violence in Donbas (in 2014)—we have observed the rise of Russian assertiveness and hostile activities against NATO alongside its eastern flank, while in Afghanistan, there has been an increase in Taliban and Islamic State (IS) activities.

“NATO also needs to permanently increase its collective and national capacities, improving the readiness of armed forces and increasing military expenditures.”

At the meeting, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis also briefed his Canadian and European counterparts on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and he expressed his concerns over potential Russian violation of the agreement. Other topics touched at the meeting related to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs and progress on the fight against IS in northern Iraq and Syria.

The Growth of NATO’s Assets

Re-shaping the command structure—which develops operationally the strategic level outcomes of the 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit—creates two new NATO operational commands. Both new headquarters will be able to improve the current logistic assets of NATO to deploy its troops across the Atlantic and within Europe.

The Atlantic Command (AC) will be responsible for maintaining maritime trails between the United States and Europe, whereas a Logistics Command (LC) will respond more quickly to threats in Europe. There is still an open discussion about the locations of both commands. However, maritime nations such as Portugal, Spain, France, and the US could host the AC headquarters. The LC will be probably located somewhere in central Europe—likely Germany or Poland—allowing for swift movement of NATO forces across borders in the event of a conflict with Russia.

However, it should be noted that the final decisions related to location, size, and costs will be approved at the next NATO defense ministers meeting on Feb. 18, 2018. The fact is that the new commands will increase the number of NATO headquarters to nine, from the current seven, namely, two strategic commands (Allied Command Operations (ACO) in Mons, Belgium, and Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, VA); two operational commands (Joint Force Command (JFC) in Brunssum, Netherlands, and Joint Force Command (JFC) in Naples, Italy); and three tactical commands (Headquarters Allied Air Command (HQ AIRCOM) in Ramstein, Germany; Headquarters Allied Land Command (HQ LANDCOM) in Izmir, Turkey; and Allied Martine Command (HQ MARCOM) in Northwood, UK).

The creation of new commands reverses the policy of cutbacks that have been in effect since the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, NATO dropped the concept of developing its forward military presence, a strategy based on maintaining considerable NATO forces located in the proximity of potential conflict. Instead, NATO began a strategy based on quick deployment to the battlefield. That strategy subsequently led to a reduction in the number of NATO permanent commands in Europe from about 60 during the Cold War to the current seven headquarters.

The Most Pressing Cybersecurity Challenges to NATO

At the Brussels meeting, NATO defense ministers also agreed to create the Operational Cybersecurity Center (OCC) to protect NATO troops deployed in the framework of NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (NATO EFP) to the Baltic States and Poland.

This decision implements the outcomes of the 2016 Summit, where political leaders of NATO member states decided to recognize cyberspace as the next battlefield alongside land, sea, and air. The OCC will help NATO to protect elements of command-and-control system of four Battalion Battle Groups (BBGs) deployed to NATO’s eastern flank. The exact location of the OCC—like the locations of AC and the LC—remains unknown. However, it will be probably located at the ACO in Mons, where the NATO Computer Incident Response Team (NCIRC) has been hosted. The decision to place the OCC in Belgium will allow NATO to bring together its cybersecurity assets to one location nearby the NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

President Trump’s Impact on NATO & European Allies

NATO Defense Ministers also approved the decision to increase NATO’s footprint in Afghanistan. As a result, the size of the Resolute Support Mission (RSM, for which NATO cooperates with 39 partner nations) will increase from around 13,000 to around 16,000 troops. Moreover, NATO confirmed its willingness to continue to fund the Afghan Security Forces (ASF) until at least 2020.

It seems that US President Donald J. Trump’s pressure on European allies regarding insufficient military expenditures—only four European NATO members contribute 2% or more of their GDP, namely, the UK, Estonia, Poland, and Greece—and unwillingness to engage in Afghanistan has brought the first effects. The decision to increase NATO troops in Afghanistan also meets the main outlines of the new Afghan strategy announced by Trump on Aug. 21, 2017, which increased the number of US troops in the country. However, it necessary to mention that NATO troops will be only conducting training support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and will remain excluded from combat operations conducted by the US forces.

Summary: Back to Its Roots

The decision to create two new headquarters in Europe indicates that the Alliance has adapted itself to the changing security environment. After years of out-of-area missions—conducted since 2014, in response to Sept. 11, 2001—NATO has gone back to its roots and the strategy of collective defense according to Art. 51 of the UN Charter and Art. 5 of the Washington Treaty (1949). Furthermore, the changes to the NATO command structure meet political decisions from the two previous NATO Summits in Newport (2014) and Warsaw (2016). The change enhances NATO’s collective defense and the Alliance’s ability to respond to modern threats in cyberspace.

However, although NATO decided to deploy four battle groups to the Baltic States and Poland—approximately 1,000 to 1,200 troops each and about 4,500 troops combined—and increase its military presence in Romania and Bulgaria, NATO’s potential to deter Russia remains insufficient. NATO needs to be ready to deploy multinational rapid response forces to Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF, also known as “NATO’s spearhead” consisting of 15,000 troops) and the major part (40,000 troops) of the NATO Response Force (NRF). A potential conflict in Central and Eastern Europe requires receiving reinforcement troops from Western Europe and the US as soon as possible. The Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of violence in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 drove NATO to reshape its defense strategy and rebuild its command structure.

Maintaining the ability to a swiftly deploy US and NATO troops across the Atlantic and within Europe is crucial to improving NATO’s capacity to deter Russia effectively. It also meets calls for “military Schengen zone” (analogically to EU Schengen zone) to get troops moving among European countries. At the meeting in Brussels, the Alliance has made substantial progress in reducing legal obstacles to cross-border operations, tardy bureaucratic requirements, and infrastructure problems, such as roads and bridges that are unable to accommodate large military vehicles and storage tank platforms. The idea is nothing new and has covered most of Europe since 1996. However, it has not been fully implemented within all EU and NATO countries over the last 20 years. In recent months, a dozen political and military leaders—such as Gen. Ben Hodges, US Army Europe Commander, or Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Dutch Defense Minister—as well as security experts on both sides of the Atlantic, have highlighted the need of this improvement.

Moreover, NATO cannot stop its new adaptation process. Its battle groups currently suffer from equipment shortages that have an impact on their operational capabilities. The NATO frontier forces require more armored vehicles and tanks, artillery, medium-range air defense systems (i.e., moving US Patriot systems from Germany to the Baltic States or Poland), as well as a clarification of the rules of engagement.

NATO also needs to permanently increase its collective and national capacities, improving the readiness of armed forces and increasing military expenditures. For comparison, Russia is currently assumed to be able to mobilize at least 100,000 troops within few weeks and could seize the Baltic States within 36 to 60 hours. The recent Zapad 2017 military exercises indicated that Russian troops could conduct this sort of operation. It is also necessary to increase NATO’s presence alongside its eastern flank. The presence of four battle groups is insufficient to counter a potential Russian attack on the Baltic States. Allies might appreciate the deployment of the US Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) to Eastern Europe to strengthen NATO’s ability to deter Russia (currently the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, KS, is deployed in Poland).

The creation of two new operational commands also brings some concerns. The first one is fear of adequate funding. Despite the increasing defense budgets of European members of NATO—Poland, for instance, will increase its military spending from 2% to 2.5% of GDP by 2030, while Germany’s military budget in 2017 increased by 8% in comparison with the previous year—it may be challenging for NATO to find sufficient funds to financially cover two new commands and the OCC.

Additionally, the increase in NATO’s support for Afghanistan operations is a signal that President Trump’s demands could affect NATO and America’s allies in Europe. Europeans will remain against involving their troops in combat operations carried out by the US against the Taliban and IS as there is a tremendous fear among European leaders of a military death toll, and this attitude will surely cause more allegations by Trump against the commitment of his European partners.   

All of the above concerns no doubt will be touched on the next NATO defense ministers meeting in February 2018, which will be one of the last meetings before the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels (on July 11-12, 2018).


INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart was a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.

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