Amelia Hadfield / Apr 2020
On 15 April, NATO Defence Ministers met via a secure video conference for an extraordinary meeting about NATO’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg then outlined for the press both “the long-term implications of this health crisis” and the “geo-political effects of the pandemic.” Stoltenberg then suggested, somewhat optimistically that decision-makers “seek to use the economic downturn as an opening to invest in our critical industries and infrastructure.”
There is a little doubt that Secretary General Stoltenberg is genuinely concerned about the sustained impact of the COVID crisis on national defence budgets and broader commitments to NATO funding. Even before the 2008 Eurozone crisis, NATO European allies contributions had declined precipitously. After 2008, belt-tightening and military budget slashing was rife. The last few years have seen austerity attitudes ease, and increased spending both for NATO and recent European defence initiatives. The 2% defence spending goal agreed at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales has slowly become achievable for some members. Going to back to the bad old days therefore is not an option, both in terms of budget, and geopolitical risk. So, Stoltenberg was quick to remind everyone that “security challenges have not diminished because of COVID-19.” The onus is on NATO therefore to justify defence expenditure in straightened times on the basis of demonstrable utility. So, what is, and isn’t NATO doing?
NATO’s COVID-19 Ops
It is important to remember that NATO - as an Intergovernmental Military Alliance - does not have its own soldiers nor own military equipment, vehicles, submarines, tanks or airplanes (with the exception of a fleet of Airborne Warning and Control aircraft (AWACS) and Global Hawk surveillance drones). Any tank, truck or plane bearing a NATO flag belongs to one of its member states, who in turn need to juggle competing national, NATO, national EU and possible UN mission commitments. NATO therefore has neither the equipment to send, nor military personnel to dispatch (e.g. military doctors). What NATO does have is know-how and an impressively large table around which nations take decisions on collective action. In this respect, COVID-19 crisis is no different to an in-theatre military conflict: NATO issues a “force generation” request to which able members commit “their” soldiers and equipment. NATO’s current COVID-19 response includes 3 key dimensions.
First, coordinating military support. Allied foreign ministers meeting on 2 April tasked General Wolters, NATO’s top operational commander to lead Allied Command Operations Task to “further contribute, coordinate and assist” both national militaries and civilian authorities. Here, NATO can leverage its various experience and planning capabilities, alongside its expertise in coordinating large scale operations in global locations, including Rapid Air Mobility, which in coordination with EUROCONTROL, allows military flights to transport key items including medicines, supplies and personnel.
Procurement and Logistics
Second, procurement and logistics in moving supplies, using one of three possible mechanisms. NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) for example functions as a 24/7 clearing-house, coordinating requests for, offers of assistance between 69 allies and partners. Originally designed to assist in natural and man-made disasters, EADRCC has proved invaluable in coordinating COVID-19 responses across Europe, with member countries like Spain, Italy, Albania, North Macedonia plus partners (Ukraine, Colombia and Georgia) making requests to which others have respond (Germany providing Spain with ventilators for example).
NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) is also coordinating many relief efforts. As a well-established buyer with contacts around the world, the NSPA can take advantage of the economies of scale, working to provide vital supplies (e.g. to operations) under time pressure, recently delivering tons of medical supplies and equipment to Italy, Norway, Spain and Romania. Given the exceptionally high demand for medical supplies and equipment across the market, the time-critical nature of their delivery, and unprecedented restrictions at borders, many allies are now making use of NSPA.
Other initiatives include Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) and Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS). The former operates several Boeing C-17 on behalf of a group Allies and partner nation, while the latter charters cargo capacity in cargo planes. These planes and cargo have moved supplies between NATO members including urgent medical supplies deliveries to Slovakia and the Czech Republic (via SALIS), while the Netherlands used SAC to deliver two Mobile Intensive Care Units to the island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean.
A little gesture goes a long way. Germany receiving Italian and French patients. Ventilators and masks moving from one NATO member to another. Not perhaps game-changers in the grand scheme of things, but enough to reduce aspects of the panic that seemed to engulf much of Europe in the opening weeks of the pandemic. A sober look at NATO’s efforts suggests that its impact is not enormous in absolute terms, but as complement to national actions, its joined-up work impacts both materially and politically, and in doing so fosters the broader sense that cooperation works, and is worth sustaining, however large the budget.
NATO is strongly equipped to protect the outer borders of the Alliance and conducting missions, but less able working inside allied territories on microscopic enemies. Military outfits in general are logistical behemoths. Retooling them for specific responses can generally be undertaken in tandem with other partners (e.g. the British army working alongside NHS to build the Nightingale Hospitals). Uri Friedman recently highlighted in The Atlantic that the use of the military in the US to assist in pandemic-related coordination gave the impression that the forces can “act as some sort of saviour,” which is “unlikely, because responding to a pandemic is not what the military was built to do”. While armed forces in states like the US, UK, and Europe have responded well to the humanitarian aspect of health emergencies, the wider challenge of public health governance, both within a country, and between countries and institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently too great a challenge. Cited by Friedman, Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development, who suggests that “as an institution designed to defeat ‘opponents on the battlefield’… the Defense Department is ‘a woefully insufficient, inefficient, and expensive tool’ to combat a pandemic”. Expecting NATO, which is significantly less coherent than a single national military force, to do the same, is simply not practicable. Equally, the threat that Europe now faces is grave and unprecedented, and it may be time for NATO to consider retooling itself.
NATO has of course shrewdly reinvented itself more than once. After the Cold War, and again in the post-9/11 era, NATO shifted from bipolar hard power structures to more diffuse threats, from frozen conflicts to anti-terrorism and cybercrime, largely by summoning up new collective tools, despite the protracted drop-off in its funding. Could and should NATO transform to a regional anti-pandemic entity, bringing to bear its various coordination mechanisms to reinforce the work of allies, partners and institutions, including the EU?
Various commentators like Elisabeth Braw from RUSI, feel the time is now, arguing that “moment for NATO to act, and to show the world that it will protect its member states. This is, in fact, NATO’s moment.” Braw goes on to suggest that “unlike the European Commission, SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe, currently General Tod D. Wolters] has the power to command. A mission authorized by the North Atlantic Council and led by SACEUR wouldn’t depend on countries assigning small gifts to needy allies”.
The problem is that while SACEUR does indeed has the power to command, unless member partners provide discrete COVID-19 specific assets for him to command. (i.e. ‘force generate’) Wolters has little if anything nothing to command in a material sense, even if a mission is authorised by the North Atlantic Council. Currently, NATO and by extension SACEUR cannot simply commandeer forces or equipment. Perhaps instead, as suggested by Braw, NATO could provide the logistics for inter-institutional bridges: “NATO shouldn’t shift its focus to humanitarian missions. But right now, there’s no government and no international organization that has the clout and command-and-control to take on this mission. The World Health Organization certainly doesn’t. People all over the world would thank NATO for delivering medics and ventilators, and for airlifting patients to NATO-operated temporary military hospitals.”
As outlined above, while NATO has already been providing much by way of op-specific coordination, a far larger exercise does not presently line up with the existing commitments by NATO partners militaries who are. already fully engaged in their 30 respective home countries. NATO has no spare capacity in terms of a rotational structure of doctors and ready-built field hospitals; indeed, any such medical capacity is primarily equipped to deal with combat trauma and stabilisation, followed by a prompt evacuation to a proper hospital, if the situation permits it. Braw is not alone in suggesting that immediate changes are needed. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, interviewed by EurActiv, recently suggested that in ensuring “the health crisis doesn’t become a security crisis”, NATO’s crisis response and threat preparedness put it in a strong position to tackle a health crisis.
In putting his case across, Stoltenberg outlined the scope of coordination in terms of military support that NATO has provided under General Wolters, in his post-defence ministerial speech of 15 April: “Military forces from across the Alliance have flown more than 100 missions to transport medical personnel, supplies, and treatment capabilities. Facilitated the construction of 25 field hospitals. Added more than 25,000 treatment beds. And over 4,000 military medical personnel have been deployed in support of civilian efforts”.
While such activity gives the impression of NATO as an in-field first responder, all such responses arise from requests made to NATO by member foreign ministers. NATO as an organisation has neither 4000 military medical personnel nor was their deployment directly facilitated by NATO. Instead, these numbers refer to military medical personnel deployed by member states in member states (each deploying their own army doctors in their own territory). There is also an unhelpful lack of clarity between NATO - the organisation - in terms of its military resources, and NATO members themselves who comprise the military forces OF the Alliance. NATO’s skill is coordinating these members in producing an effective outcome, but not the military heavy lifting itself. Hence, it stands to reason that NATO can provide a degree of coordination, transportation and help with procurement, but the brunt of the response as well as ensuing economic recovery, which might be even more critical, needs to be borne by the EU and national governments.
NATO’s COVID-19 Moment?
Stoltenberg is quite correct to argue that defence spending by partners can “provide the civil society with a surged capability that can be utilised in crises like this” whereby military personnel work alongside health workers “on the front-line all the time”. More broadly, Stoltenberg argued that establishing and coordinating “national resilience among member states as they come out of the coronavirus crisis is NATO’s responsibility”. It is clear, as the NATO chief argued, that resilience against all manner of threats now includes health threats. But the organisational power to act specifically within the scope of this area, and the particular tools needed to do so, are as yet unclear. As NATO has demonstrated in the past few weeks it is arguably flexible and swift enough an institution to offer the right form of support, even in times for which it was not initially designed. This, however, does not mean that the responsibility for solving the COVID-19 crisis, and its generational consequences, should rest solely on NATO’s shoulders. NATO’s ‘COVID-19 moment’ is therefore twofold. First, to strive for enhanced clarity about the reciprocal nature of its relationship with its partners and allies in terms of its use of logistical hardware. Second, to undertake a sharper look at the procedural software necessary to heighten its ability to act more autonomously, if needed, in similar situations in the future.
By 2013, NATO’s European allies spending had slid to 1.6% of GDP (below the US’s 4%) with the UK, France and Germany (NATO’s three major EU spenders) with a total reduction of close to 25%, and the Pentagon’s 2013 budget shrinking by $45 billion (9%).