Sven Biscop / Sep 2022
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US is playing its leadership role in NATO the full. Yet at the same time, it appears that in the future the defence of Europe will increasingly become the Europeans’ own business.
At the June 2022 Madrid Summit, NATO leaders gave the green light to transition to a New Force Model (NFM) in the course of 2023. The avowed aim is to create a pool of 300,000 troops in a high state of readiness (as opposed to some 40,000 today), and to pre-assign these to specific defence plans. This is very ambitious (as well it should be), all the more so because these will mostly be European troops. Is NATO building a European army?
The rationale behind the NFM is that to be able to respond to all eventualities, the NATO military commander, SACEUR, requires a better view of the available forces, and their state of readiness, beyond the 40,000 currently on rotation at any one time in the NATO Response Force (NRF). Hence the NFM provides for the organisation of forces in three tiers: 100,000 troops in tier 1 should be available within 10 days; 200,000 more in tier 2 within 10 to 30 days.
Adding to the existing scheme of pre-deployed battlegroups in the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, some additional tier 1 and 2 forces will be pre-deployed on NATO’s eastern flank, on a rotational basis, but probably not substantially so. More importantly, NATO aims for all tier 1 and 2 troops to be assigned to specific geographic defence plans for which they can then train. Tier 3, finally, provides for at least 500,000 troops more within one to six months.
Europeanising Deterrence and Defence
The rationale goes further, however. To prevent any incursion from establishing a foothold on the territory of a NATO ally which would be difficult to reduce, thus creating a fait accompli, the response must be immediate and in force. In other words, a counter-attack cannot wait for reinforcements to arrive from across the Atlantic, but must be undertaken with forces present in Europe. That, in turn, means: with mostly European forces.
If there are signs of an aggressive military build-up, North American Allies could of course pre-deploy forces preventively. But even since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although the US has brought its forward presence in Europe to 100,000 troops, the bulk of these are headquarters and depots, not combat forces. The core of the NFM will be 300,000 European high-readiness troops, therefore.
The first line of conventional deterrence and defence will thus increasingly be European. This de facto Europeanisation of the European theatre is in line with the evolution of the global strategic environment, and of US grand strategy. Concretely, if war were to break out in Europe and Asia simultaneously, the US would likely prioritise the latter (contrary to World War Two, when the strategy was “Germany first”). The European allies would thus have to hold the line in Europe; reinforcements from North America would arrive later and in smaller numbers than envisaged during the Cold War.
That is the real (though unspoken) strategic significance of the rise of China: not that it poses a military threat to Europe (it does not), but that the US identifies it as the main military threat, and allocates resources accordingly.
The European allies ought not to deplore this evolution, but must embrace it, and assume the enhanced responsibility that comes with it. In the end, it will turn NATO into a “normal” alliance.
Over the years, many Europeans have come to misunderstand what an alliance means: as if in every scenario their main ally, the US, takes the lead, sets the strategy, and provides the tip of the spear. That is a protectorate, not an alliance. One can hardly blame the US for at times behaving high-handedly towards those who take its protection for granted.
In a normal alliance, one organises to defend oneself, and calls upon one’s allies when necessary – not by default.
Link to the full paper: https://www.egmontinstitute.be/the-new-force-model-natos-european-army/