Substantial Risk NATO Grapples with Serious Organizational Shortcomings

In a secret report, NATO warns that it may not be prepared to confront a hypothetical Russian attack. Senior military officers would like to see a return to the command structures used by the alliance during the Cold War.
German military vehicles lined up ready for transport to Lithuania as part of NATO's "Enhanced Forward Presence."

German military vehicles lined up ready for transport to Lithuania as part of NATO's "Enhanced Forward Presence."


The 2nd Cavalry Regiment is one of the oldest units in the U.S. Army. As early as 1846, soldiers from the unit fought against Mexico and in the American Indian Wars two decades later, elements of the unit stumbled into an ambush and were scalped. In 1905, the cavalry members put down a rebellion on the Philippines before going on to take part in two world wars. More recently, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment made several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But on July 18, 2017, the 1st Squadron of the proud regiment came up against an opponent that it couldn't handle. At the Romanian-Bulgarian border, the unit's convoy found itself stopped by a simple border crossing. "We sat in our Strykers for an hour and a half in the sun just waiting for guys to manually stamp some paperwork," Colonel Patrick Ellis, the unit's commander, told the American website Defense One.

In times of peace, such a situation seems little more than burlesque. But in more serious circumstances, such a thing could limit NATO's ability to defend itself. Ever since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the Western alliance has been preparing to defend its territory against an aggressor, should it become necessary. But the bureaucracy associated with the international borders among the alliance's 29 member states likely slows troop convoys more effectively than any Russian tank trap ever could. And the problem isn't one of bureaucracy alone.

Since the end of June, a report marked "NATO SECRET" has been circulating in headquarters in Brussels that unsparingly lists the alliance's weaknesses. Under the innocuous title "Progress Report on the Alliance's Strengthened Deterrence and Defense Posture," the authors arrive at the shocking conclusion that "NATO's ability to logistically support rapid reinforcement in the much-expanded territory covering SACEUR's (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) area of operation has been atrophied since the end of the Cold War."

Atrophy is a word used by doctors to describe the wasting away of bodily tissue, often the result of disuse due to injury. And it takes quite some time before strength is rebuilt. Twenty-seven years after the end of the Cold War, NATO's logistical infrastructure is apparently in a similar situation: Its functionality is limited.

There are shortages of almost everything: things like low-loaders for tanks, train cars for heavy equipment and modern bridges that can bear the weight of a 64-ton giant like the Leopard 2 battle tank. What good are the most expensive weapons systems when they can't be transported to where they are needed most? "The overall risk to rapid reinforcement is substantial," the report reads.

A Vexing Situation

Not even the alliance's rapid-response unit can be relied upon. "The current status of enablement of SACEUR's AOR does not give sufficient confidence that even the NATO Response Force is able to respond rapidly and be sustained, as required."

The secret report from Brussels paints a picture of an alliance that wouldn't be in a position to defend against an attack from Russia. It would be unable to position its troops quickly enough, it lacks sufficient officers on staff and supplies from across the Atlantic are insufficient.

Graphic: NATO's Eastern Border

Graphic: NATO's Eastern Border


It is a vexing situation given that the Western alliance is (likely) militarily superior to, and (certainly) in much better shape economically than, Russian President Vladimir Putin's autocratic regime. Ultimately, though, as thousands of years of military history have shown, it is often unspectacular factors such as supply lines, provisions and logistics that determine victory or defeat. To be sure, hardly anyone really thinks that Russia might attack a NATO member state, but many in the alliance are convinced that only a credible military deterrence will prevent Putin from exerting political pressure on the alliance's easternmost countries like Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

As such, three years after the Crimea annexation, the alliance's military architecture is facing far-reaching restructuring. The period of the so-called "peace dividend" - a term referring to the years following 1989 when Western countries felt they no longer needed to spend as much money on their defensive capabilities - is over and Cold War command structures have returned. Once again, NATO should be prepared for a large military conflict, for a "MJO+," as it is called in military jargon. The invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, whereby an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all, would constitute such a "Major Joint Operation Plus."

The alliance "must be able to rapidly reinforce a threatened ally or allies, to underpin deterrence in peacetime and crises, and to reinforce an ally or allies for defense in case of attack," the report reads. It must also be able to quickly mobilize and sustain troops, "whatever the nature, demand, destination or duration of the operation, mission or activity." To ensure that capability, "a robust civil/military logistics structure and enabling capabilities" are required, including lines of communication from North America to the eastern and southern borders of NATO territory and "intra-European routes."

Defense ministers from the 29 NATO member states assigned the task of reforming the alliance's command structures back in February. In the future, the alliance must be able to carry out several operations concurrently at the maximum "level of ambition," they said at the time.

'Relevant and Robust'

Hitherto existing NATO command structures is "at best, only partially fit for purpose and, while it has not been tested, would quickly fail if confronted with the full NATO Level of Ambition," the secret NATO paper notes. This "level of ambition" is designed as "MJO+." In other words, NATO is preparing for a possible war with Russia.

NATO military leaders have long known that the alliance's command structures are no longer up to the task of a major conflict with Russia. A week ago Friday, they presented the NATO Military Committee with their suggestions for augmenting the officer staff. Now, all member states have the opportunity to comment on the plans and in early November, defense ministers will likely approve it.

"We recognize the need to adapt and modernize the alliance and its command structure," says Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide. "Norway is committed to ensuring that NATO's command structure remains relevant and robust." Her Danish counterpart Claus Hjort Frederiksen says: "Russia has broken international law," making it necessary for the alliance to review its structures. "NATO is the strongest defensive alliance in the world because for the last 70 years, it has constantly adapted to new challenges."

Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis likewise demands improved structures for "NATO's deterrence and military reinforcement measures" in Eastern Europe. The new structure should "support NATO's posture in vulnerable areas, such as the Baltic region."

Only a few numbers are necessary to document the atrophy that has befallen the alliance. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, 23,000 soldiers served in NATO command posts, but hundreds of thousands of American troops were also stationed in Europe at the time. In a crisis, military leaders could have quickly mobilized both troops and materiel and sent them east.

Supply lines across the Atlantic from the U.S. to Europe were also better organized. From 1952 to 2003, NATO maintained a specific command tasked solely with transporting military supplies to Europe. Every day, the supreme allied commander, an American admiral based in Norfolk, Virginia, planned for a potential large-scale confrontation with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

But then the wall fell and relations with Russia briefly thawed. It seemed the time had come to disarm and take advantage of the peace dividend. By 2011, the command posts had shrunk by 10,000 officers to just 13,000. These days, only 6,800 show up for service in the two command headquarters in Brunssum, the Netherlands and Mons, Belgium.

No Longer Unthinkable

For quite some time, the smaller command posts were more than sufficient because the armies belonging to the alliance no longer saw large land wars as the greatest risk. Indeed, the militaries underwent substantial changes, instead focusing on "international crisis management," a reference to smaller missions outside alliance territory. The need to defend national and alliance territory seemed obsolete, a relic from the times of the Cold War.

The alliance was completely taken off guard by the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Suddenly, the idea of war in Europe was no longer outlandish and it was no longer unthinkable that Russia could turn its attentions to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which had been Soviet republics. Unsurprisingly, concern was particularly high in Eastern European NATO member states. The Baltic countries and Poland insisted that the alliance had to send a strong message and they demanded reassurances that NATO would rush to their aid should the need arise.

They were heard and at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, the alliance agreed to send combat units to the four countries. The "battlegroups," each of which made up of around 1,000 troops under the leadership of the four largest NATO partners - the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and Germany - are to act as an early-warning system. The "Enhanced Forward Presence" is too small to be particularly meaningful from a military point of view, but it is a clear message to Russia that NATO is determined to defend its territory, even in the former Soviet republics in the Baltics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observing the recent Russian military exercises known as Zapad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observing the recent Russian military exercises known as Zapad.


But the move to the east also laid bare the alliance's weaknesses, some of which the current command structure revamp is designed to fix. As determined as NATO was to resuscitate its former posture of deterrence, the implementation was chaotic. "We were forced to realize that we had become quite rusty," one NATO general admits. "We had simply forgotten how to move troops."

Situations of the kind experienced by Colonel Ellis from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment at the Romanian-Bulgarian border are hardly unique to the alliance's southeast corner. All countries, and sometimes even local and regional authorities, have to approve each individual military transport. There are no standardized forms and it isn't enough to simply report the total number of vehicles: The authorities insist on receiving the serial numbers of each individual truck and armored vehicle. Welcome to the great NATO paper war.

Problematic Distribution

If NATO wants to transfer troops from Stuttgart to NATO's external border in Latvia via Poland to increase the alliance's deterrent posture relative to Russia, weeks of preparation are necessary to clarify the bureaucratic details of such a transport. "Even if a war were to break out, that wouldn't mean that the rules would be lifted," says General Steven Shapiro, head of logistics for the U.S. Army in Europe. And experts like Shapiro are fully aware that bureaucracy isn't the only hurdle in the way of an effective defense of alliance territory.

The provision of supplies must likewise be reorganized, a need that has led to a proposal to establish two new command posts with a total staff of 2,000. A new maritime command in the U.S., modeled after the Supreme Allied Command in the Cold War, is to organize the safe passage of soldiers and materiel to Europe. The sea route, many high-ranking NATO officers believe, could prove to be the alliance's Achilles heel in a worst-case scenario. In classified meetings focused on command reform, analysts have warned that Russian submarines are present in the Atlantic, though they go largely undetected. Attacks on NATO troop convoys could hardly be defended against as things currently stand.

But the distribution of supplies in Europe is also problematic, a concern that an additional command is to address. Its task would be that of planning and safeguarding logistics between Central Europe and NATO member states to the east. The hope is to ensure mobility and to better protect areas west of the alliance's outer border. While the concept may sound rather technical, it is actually nothing less than the rebirth of the mobilization concept adhered to during the Cold War.

Poland has demonstrated great interest in leading this "Rear Area Operation Command." Warsaw has been insisting that as many NATO units as possible be permanently stationed in Poland. The Polish government believes that doing so would be an effective means of deterring the Russians.

But the Americans and other allies favor a different location: Germany's geographic placement make it an ideal candidate. The command, after all, would be a kind of distribution center for troops that land in Bremerhaven or elsewhere in Central Europe. In early October, high-ranking military representatives from the U.S. informally asked their German counterparts if the Bundeswehr, as Germany's military is known, would be interested in applying to host the new facility. In a Thursday evening telephone conversation between German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her American counterpart James Mattis, their first since the German elections in late September, the new command structure was likewise on the agenda.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 43/2017 (October 21st, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

For Berlin, leading the new command is an attractive prospect. It would mean an important task for Germany, which has repeatedly been pushed by other alliance members to take on a more significant role. Domestically, the project would likely also be unproblematic, even if the Green Party becomes part of the next government. The plan, after all, doesn't call for Germany to send troops into battle. It merely envisions the country supplying staff personnel, the kind of task that German political leaders enjoy taking on the most .

Senior British military officer Richard Shirreff is keeping a close eye on NATO, now that it is finally beginning to move. The four-star general was deputy supreme allied commander in Europe until 2014, making him the highest-ranking European in the NATO command structure. He attracted attention following his retirement by writing a thriller about a fictitious account of war with Russia.

The book isn't only interesting for its literary qualities, but also for its message: After the alliance focused on distant crises like those in Afghanistan after the end of the Cold War, it is time to once again take seriously the threat posed by Russia. Otherwise, Shirreff believes, NATO doesn't stand a chance in the face of an attack in, say, the Baltics. "It's high time for Europe to see the annexation of Crimea as a wake-up call," Shirreff says.

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