NATO is moving East and hybrid

Meeting of NATO Defense Ministers is re expected to agree on an enhanced forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.


1.  Rotational, permanent, or permanently (or better to say persistently) rotational. How do you see the future presence of NATO troops on the eastern flank?

2. From the Wales summit we hear a lot about how NATO should adapt. One area is also hybrid warfare. I know it is a very broad topic, but would you say that NATO is doing enough in this area?


Dylan LehrkeArmed Forces Analyst at IHS Jane’s

1. NATO’s presence on its eastern front is currently predicated on a persistent rotation of military forces. While the size and number of these rotational elements has increased over the last two years, they are still largely ad hoc in nature. However, it is likely that as they become increasingly routine, they will become standing commitments that do not vary based on the concerns of the day. The fact that the US Army is pre-positioning more equipment in eastern NATO countries is a clear indicator that these rotations may continue indefinitely. If this occurs, the NATO forces become in essence persistently based in the region, much as US forces were permanently in Kuwait after Desert Storm even though the units themselves were rotational. Of note, US Army forces in Korea last year moved to this indefinite standing rotational posture after more than 50 years of using a permanent basing model.

The posture of persistent rotation has at least two advantages for NATO forces. First, it gives a large number of units from NATO’s Western European and North American countries experience with their eastern allies. Second, it helps establish and enhance a robust logistical network to get forces to Eastern Europe quickly and maintain them once there.

All of this said, rotational postures such as this take numerically more soldiers and equipment since there must always be forces deployed, as well as other forces getting ready to deploy and those recovering from deployment. This is the reason the US Navy over the last two years has forward deployed four destroyers to Rota, Spain, permanently (for the BMD mission). It is also why the US Army is pre-positioning equipment in Eastern Europe. Thus, in order to make the most of limited resources, it is feasible that in the long term, more NATO forces could be persistently based in Eastern Europe on a non-rotational basis.

On a side note, I do not think this would violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act but that is perhaps a different topic.

2. Despite being a rather in-vogue term, hybrid warfare is not new. Military forces throughout history have used both regular and irregular forces simultaneously, along with a mixture of conventional and unconventional tactics. At the same time, nation states have also always brought to bear many tools of power (including soft power) in advance of and in support of military power. Lastly, it is simply the nature of warfare that all sides will seek an asymmetric advantage that avoids the strength of its adversaries.

That said, there is no doubt that the conventional forces of status quo states have always struggled to face these unconventional and hybrid forces of revisionist groups/states. Unsurprisingly then, NATO has superb conventional battle capabilities but has a less-than-perfect record facing non-conventional threats. In addition, non-transparent strategies such as the use of ‘little green men’, ‘fifth columns’, and cyber-attacks is inherently difficult to counter militarily as these bypass the strengths of conventional forces. The goal of these hybrid strategies is essentially to wage a ‘war’ and weaken a state without committing to a traditional force-on-force war as it is typically defined. With this in mind, there need to be more tools for NATO allies to support one another without invoking Article 5. In other words, there must be more ways to undertake collective defence short of an armed attack and war response.

There is a great amount of dialogue within NATO regarding the nature of hybrid threats and how they should be confronted, and it is likely that future operational doctrines will include the concept. Already training is being undertaken in a manner than includes hybrid scenarios. This is important because the training will inform lessons learned that will then shape further responses to the hybrid threat. But we are in the early stages here. In addition, it is important to note also that many hybrid threats need to be countered by non-military means.

Meanwhile, the most progress in countering hybrid threats has been made in the area of cyber defence, which is receiving significant funding and resources across NATO countries.

However, overall, the concept of hybrid warfare is simply too broad and this makes the articulation of a response difficult. The fact is that experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has prepared many NATO military forces to confront a range of non-conventional aspects of hybrid threats and lessons have also been learned from the events in the Ukraine. In addition, many aspects of doctrine for foreign internal defence will be applicable even if it was written decades ago. However, the next hybrid threat will also inevitably be novel. Thus, NATO will likely be somewhat unprepared and the key to success will be the ability to rapidly respond and develop a new way to counter the threat.

These comments tend more to opinion and analysis than fact, but that makes sense given the early stage of the hybrid war dialogue.

Igor Merheim-Eyre, PhD Candidate in International Relations, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

1. NATO’s presence on the eastern flank is an issue that has been tormenting decision-makers now for some years. The problem, however, was that NATO’s response has been reactionary (subject to Russia’s moves), and hindered by neglected defense spending and complex decision-making among 28 members with different assessments on the implications of strengthening the eastern flank.

For this reason, permanent presence seems certainly unlikely. The Dutch, for their part, have already rejected the Polish calls for permanent bases, while NATO diplomats made it clear that there will be no ‘Ramstein’ (referring to the large NATO base in Germany) in either Poland or any other Central-Eastern European country. A rotational system, however, is an expensive and inadequate response at a time when Russia has an on-going presence in eastern Ukraine and is increasing the number of divisions on its western border

In this sense, a rotational system may prove useful in the short-term but, in the long-term, and perhaps as a compromise, a permanently rotational system seems the most likely option. This, however, will be further determined by the infrastructure on the ground, which will require significant investment before NATO even starts considering the pre-positioning of equipment and the stationing of forces. This also fits in the strategy of providing a ‘persistent’ defense of the alliance’s eastern flank.

Finally, by making the rotational system permanent, NATO will also avoid breaching its 1997 Founding Act with Russia, which sough to limit the number of troops stationed on the eastern flank. No doubt, Russia will respond verbally to any kind of arrangement agreed, however substantive. Strengthening the flank with troops and equipment alone will not be enough. A renewed diplomatic effort will need to be made, which might be spurred by Russian economic woes and the possibility of finding common ground on the Syrian war. Ukraine will no doubt continue to provide a sticking point in relations but, while increasing its capacity to respond, NATO must also look for areas of common interest (which still exist) rather than merely seek contestation.

2. The problem with hybrid war is that you can call literally any kind of warfare hybrid – by definitions, all wars involve more than troops on a battlefield. In this sense, when we say that NATO must be prepared for a hybrid war, we mean that it must be prepared for a variety of situations and threats – from cyber warfare to exploiting the grievances of ethnic minorities. It is natural for any military to be prepared for such means of escalating or fighting wars; military planning has always included such variety of issues.

The issue, therefore, is rather of response. Can NATO respond quickly and effectively? How will it be able to identify a threat when it occurs? Will all 28 Members see a potential threat as a real threat? The question of hybrid warfare is as much political as it is about military planning because it involves small steps of escalation rather than singular event to which you can point to as defining when a threat begins or not. Take Ukraine, for example: it involved speeches by Kremlin officials about the suppression of Russian language Ukraine, protests on the streets, this shifted to accusations of general suppression of Russian minorities in the Donbas, violent protests, rejection of the Euromaidan, take-over of government buildings, calls for independence, escalation of military conflict and covert operations and, finally, involvement of Russian troops on the ground. In other words, ‘hybrid warfare’ may arise out of many situations – however, at which point one recognises the issue as foreign intervention, and with what means one can intervene remains the key sticking points.

Sean KayProfessor, Department of Politics and Government, Ohio Wesleyan University

These deployments, at least the U.S. ones, rotating through are relatively small and primarily symbolic. The funding for the US presence is not in the regular budget. These appear built with the intent that it can ratchet up or down as need be depending on circumstances. These deployments really do not answer the much more critical question which is the nature of the consensus process in NATO on which any use of these deployments would be dependent. Moreover, allies are not going to be interested in devoting much resources into the East when many see the primary challenges as coming from the South. At the end of the day, whether these rotational deployments and pre-positioned equipment became permanent – that would be up to Russia and it’s behavior. In terms of hybrid warfare, NATO is giving attention to it; but the very nature of that kind of warfare suggests all different forms of combat. In this sense, NATO would be wise to take a broader interpretation of Article V in terms of responses. The NATO Treaty does not specify what the response would be in the event of any attack; the allies would get more consensus and more deterrent value from a broader definition of Article V than traditional military thinking, which would have very limited utility given the size and nature of reinforcements for symbolic forward presence – political, diplomatic, and economic responses also can be applied, perhaps even to more effect. In terms of the Warsaw Summit, NATO has some other problems it must grapple with ahead of that if it wishes to maintain its credibility as an advancer of Euro-Atlantic values – in particular political trends in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. The optics of holding this summit in Warsaw, at the moment, are not good.



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