Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO ran on the assumption that the potential for a large scale military conflict with Russia was a thing of the past. But a wakeup call came with the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. On September 4 of the same year, NATO held a summit in Wales where members discussed deep concerns about Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. During these discussions Europeans and Americans discovered that NATO, in the state that it was, would be unable to repel a Russian attack on the most easterly members: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland.
The four largest NATO members – the USA, UK, Canada, and Germany – agreed to deploy four combat units designated as ‘battlegroups’ comprising of one thousand troops to the four countries. The battlegroups, also known as the Enhanced Forward Presence, would act as an early warning system. Tasked with leading NATO’s ambitions in Estonia, in March 2017 the UK began sending more troops and armour to bolster NATO defences in the Baltic region. Challenger 2 tanks and AS90 self-propelled artillery units went en route to Estonia, while British Eurofighter Typhoon fast-jets were sent to Romania.
Since the end of June 2017, a secret report has been circulating NATO headquarters in Brussels. It highlights and expresses deep concern over a lack of readiness, going into detail at what lies at the heart of NATO’s biggest problems. There are shortcomings of organisation and mobilisation. Logistical concerns run through the arteries of the report. The ability for rapid reinforcement is under risk by a shortage of things such as low-loaders for tanks, train cars for heavy equipment and even bridges too frail to handle heavy battle tanks. The status of the Response Force – which would be the first arrival force combating Russia after being alerted – would be unable to sustain its positions and roles if war broke out.
Logistically, NATO has become trapped in bureaucracy. Whenever a force is mobilized and needs to cross into other member nations, vehicles wait hours at border outposts to be given the all-clear. For good reason, state, local, and regional authorities need forms to be filled, papers to be approved and serial numbers of vehicles crossing borders to be logged.General Steven Shapiro, head of logistics for the U.S. Army in Europe said that in times of war, these rules would not be lifted. But in a conflict scenario, this could mean not being able to quickly reinforce battle lines with fresh support during a war.
Since the summit, NATO has been determined to revamp the organisation and increase its presence along the Russian border. On October 14 2017, US troops from the 2nd Armoured Brigade arrived in Poland. Operation Atlantic Resolve is NATO’s response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The operation is being funded by the European Reassurance Initiative, which was created as a riposte to Russia’s increased activities in the region. On October 23, US soldiers arrived in Romania. The 1st Infantry Division, also known as ‘Big Red One’, were joined by distinguished Romanian commanders at their arrival ceremony. The aim of the division is to commence bilateral training with Romanian troops.
US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been training in the Baltic region and the Caucasus. Training right on the doorstep of Russia, the special forces group wants to show Putin that NATO has a persistent presence in Eastern Europe. On November 14 2017, a batch of the latest version of the Apache attack helicopter the AH-64E arrived in Germany. They were delivered as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. All this shows an obvious heightened coordination of logistics and needs being brought to the European continent.
On November 8 2017, plans for a large expansion to the NATO structure were made during a meeting in Brussels. Two new command centres will upgrade NATO’s ability to respond to aggression from Russia. One centre will be in Europe focusing on the smoothness of troop movements across the continent, and on cybersecurity – the first of it’s kind. Poland is vouching for the new command centre to be established within it’s borders but no location has been decided yet. The other new command centre will be located in America. Its purpose will be for Atlantic security so the US and Canada are able to cross safely over to Europe with troops, armour and all other equipment in the event of war. This increases the total number of NATO command centres to nine.
The UK is NATO’s second most powerful member. The General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg commented on the UK’s increasing role saying “We have to remember that the United Kingdom has the second largest defence budget. Next to the United States, no-one else invests more in defence than the UK. And the UK is leading one of the battlegroups we have deployed in the Baltic countries. They are responsible for our Response Force, and they are present in Afghanistan.” Stoltenberg also commended the UK’s commitment to spending more than two per cent of GDP on defence, and said the country was leading by example.
But in reality, the UK armed forces have been in steady decline for many years. The army is now numbered around just 80,000 regular soldiers. US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of the US Army in Europe, has voiced concerns about further British defence cuts. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have been deemed to be at the edge of capacity by General Sir Richard Barrons, the former commander of the Joint Forces Command. The Royal Marines are set to be cut by one thousand soldiers, while the Ministry of Defence is hiring more backroom staff.
After the annexation of Crimea, the possibility of a Russia versus the West conflict is no longer a farfetched theory for NATO. The logistical inadequacies caused this newfound determination to increase troops and equipment in Eastern Europe, in the name of concern for the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. But as the biggest NATO player in Europe – the UK – deals with a wide range of issues domestically, cuts to the British armed forces may end up being the achilles heel to the ambitions NATO set out in the Wales summit.