Controversies in Military Ethics & Security Policy
Fit for Deterrence and Defense? The NATO Summit in Madrid and the Future of the Alliance
February 24, 2022 – the day on which Europe once again became the theater of a war of aggression fueled by imperial claims to power – undeniably represents a watershed moment. Until recently, many would have found it hard to imagine such a blatant breach of international law on European soil. Not infrequently, warnings about such a scenario – often from Eastern European states – were dismissed as scaremongering. Within NATO, at least at the military level, the possibility of conventional aggression against Allies had been considered since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and initial military operation plans for defense in a conflict with state actors had been prepared in the form of so-called “graduated response plans”. This was intended as part of a gradual strengthening of deterrence and defense capabilities. At the political level, however, this adjustment was not made until much later. The Alliance’s Strategic Concept dating from 2010, which was still applicable until the summer of 2022, regarded the Euro-Atlantic area as a region at peace, and assessed the probability of conventional attack against a member state as low. Nevertheless, due to Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign and security policy, as well as intensifying geopolitical competition with China, a revision of the document and its associated military planning had been under discussion for several years. At the NATO Brussels Summit in 2021, the Allied heads of government finally tasked the NATO Secretary General with developing a new Strategic Concept. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 accelerated this adaptation process, which was enshrined at the highest strategic level by the adoption of the new Strategic Concept at the Madrid Summit in June 2022. Its key priorities include refocusing the Alliance on its core area of responsibility, and strengthening deterrence and defense capabilities.
A changed security environment
NATO’s security environment has changed dramatically over the past decade. When the 2010 Strategic Concept was adopted, Allies were still seeking a partnership with Russia to jointly shape the European security architecture. Since then, Moscow has emerged as a core threat to the Alliance. For years, Russia has regarded the U.S. and NATO as the greatest military threat to its own security – a view that has been accompanied by increasingly strident rhetoric directed against the West. Moscow has used this perceived threat to justify an aggressive foreign and security policy of spheres of interest and influence, accompanied by a military buildup. The Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, published on July 31, 2022, clearly illustrates this development. The document assumes that NATO seeks direct confrontation, including military confrontation, especially in the Euro-Atlantic area, and sets out global geographic priorities for containing the United States and NATO, supposedly in defense of its own security. The maritime domain is one in which Russia aims to realize its geopolitical interests and ambitions and to shape the international order on its own terms. In this context, the Arctic is given the highest national priority. But the triad of the Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea is also attributed great importance for Russia’s geopolitical and geoeconomic interests. In recent years, the Russian leadership has promoted the idea of a single security and economic zone extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, while Moscow’s aggressive and imperial actions underline its intention to move geostrategically – and in particular for geoeconomic gains – from the edge of Europe and Asia to the center of a new Eurasia, in which it would form a central hub. In light of Russia’s aggressive hegemonic ambitions, any NATO partnership with Russia is hardly conceivable in the foreseeable future.
A particular challenge for Western states is the increasing degree to which military power is linked to the security of energy, critical infrastructure and trade. Moscow’s maritime doctrine, for example, draws a direct line between military security and the use of armed force to secure the extraction of natural resources as well as control over critical maritime infrastructure and trade routes. China’s activities in the Euro-Atlantic region, which at first glance seem to pursue economic goals – for example strategic investments in critical infrastructure –, have also raised increasing security concerns in recent years. Although the West recognized this connection many years ago with a broader concept of security, it has so far struggled to come up with suitable responses and strategies. For a long time, the Western understanding of military security was limited to possible military confrontations. Trade flows, infrastructure or even the energy supply were not seen as primary targets of military action or capabilities.
It is against this background that NATO, since 2014, has been undertaking a fundamental military and political adaptation to a security environment dominated by growing strategic competition with Russia and China.
Military adaptation: a return to deterrence and defense
Since 2014, the growing realization that Russia poses the most immediate threat to NATO has caused the Alliance to return to its core mission of deterrence and defense against military aggression by state actors. Other tasks, such as international crisis management, remain a core part of NATO’s portfolio, but have increasingly taken a back seat. This has also led to a geographic refocusing on the Euro-Atlantic region spanning from the east coast of the United States to the eastern flank of NATO’s European members. In this context, the Alliance has made a series of far-reaching operational and conceptual changes at the military level. The Readiness Action Plan (RAP) adopted at the Wales Summit in 2014 included initial measures to strengthen NATO’s deterrence posture against a potential state aggressor, and to reassure in particular the Eastern European states, whose defense capabilities were to be strengthened by the Allies. This led to the deployment of “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP) forces in the three Baltic states as well as Poland, and was accompanied by a series of new and revised military concepts.
In the face of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Allies then decided at the NATO Madrid Summit to undertake a longer-term overhaul and strengthening of their deterrence and defense posture, guided by three ideas: a New Force Model (NFM) with an increased number of troops in a high state of readiness, a stronger regional focus, and changes to its deterrence model.
The central element and tool is the New Force Model. The NFM allocates Allied forces and capabilities to different potential conflict regions within the Euro-Atlantic area – such as the eastern flank and the High North – and organizes them into three groups with rising readiness levels. In total, the NFM assigns around 800,000 troops to different readiness levels and regions. The clearly defined readiness levels are referred to as “tiers”. The first two levels – tier 1 and tier 2 – are to be ready to engage in up to 10 or around 10-30 days, respectively, and form the core of the high readiness forces, with a total of 300,000 troops. Tier 3 forces are to be ready to engage gradually within 30 to 180 days. There are further differentiations within the three NFM readiness levels. For example, within tier 1 and tier 2, the previous NATO Response Force (NRF) and Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) will be transferred into a new rapid reaction force, the Allied Reaction Force (ARF). The ARF will be under NATO operational command and control at all times, including before the outbreak of a military confrontation. Until now, many Allies had rejected permanent subordination to NATO’s supreme command, SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe), i.e. except in times of crisis.
In addition, NATO is changing its deterrence model. Previous NATO plans in Eastern and Central Europe were conceived as “deterrence by reinforcement”: the deterrent effect was based on a small rotating international troop presence in the Baltic states and Poland (around 1,000 troops in each case). This “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP) was to be reinforced in the event of a crisis. However, in particular the most exposed states on the northeastern and southeastern flank doubted the reliability of this approach, and called for the permanent stationing of larger and more heavily equipped units. The new plans pursue more of a “deterrence by denial” approach, which seeks to demonstrate to the enemy through a stronger troop presence that an attack would be doomed to failure from the outset. In practice, this is reflected in the establishment of four new battle groups deployed in Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, as a reaction to Russian aggression. In addition, the existing eFP forces are to be upgraded to multi-domain-capable units at brigade level, and heavy equipment – such as artillery or armored vehicles – is to be deployed in advance. The aim is to ensure that troops kept on standby can be deployed to potential conflict areas within a matter of hours or days, where they can seamlessly transition to combat-readiness. In addition, the assigned forces that are placed on standby are to rotate regularly to the designated region in varying strengths for joint exercises, in order to ensure a significantly higher troop presence in the region at any given time of the year.
However, this approach will only be credible if the materiel needed for an emergency – from weapons systems and ammunition to logistics – can actually be forward deployed ready and available at short notice. Several countries have already begun to increase their military contributions to NATO – including Germany, which leads the NATO multinational battle group in Lithuania. A distinction must be drawn between commitments made within the NATO framework, such as those made by Germany, and unilateral commitments that strengthen the Alliance’s posture but are realized outside of NATO on the basis of bilateral agreements. For example, the United States has pledged a comprehensive strengthening of its presence in Europe on a bilateral basis, including by establishing an army headquarters in Poland, stationing additional troops in Romania and the Baltic states, deploying air defense systems to Italy and Germany, and stationing two F-35 fighter jet squadrons in the United Kingdom. This increases the number of U.S. troops in Europe by 20,000 to more than 100,000.
All in all, this is therefore not just a quantitative increase in NATO forces, but also a comprehensive reorganization and improvement of readiness and capabilities. The NFM will be the standard by which all NATO forces and the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) are measured. To implement the aforementioned comprehensive changes, all Allies will have to make larger contributions of higher quality (troops, equipment); this will require great effort and in some cases will take a long time.
The NATO accession of Sweden and Finland
In the wake of the war against Ukraine, not only NATO is going through a process of fundamental reorganisation. The recent Russian invasion has driven two countries outside the Alliance – Sweden and Finland – to seek membership. Even before the Russian invasion, the two Scandinavian states’ views of their security environment were in flux. Stockholm and Helsinki identified a number of possible lines of conflict in the Baltic Sea region as well as in the European Arctic. It did not come as a surprise when Sweden reacted with extreme alertness to the presence of a group of landing ships belonging to Russia’s Northern and Baltic Sea Fleets not far from the island of Gotland in early January 2022, and immediately ramped up its military presence.
The outbreak of the war in Ukraine prompted both countries to fundamentally reassess their security environment and consider joining NATO; on May 18, 2022, both submitted official accession applications. At the NATO summit in Madrid, the accession protocols were ready to be symbolically signed with the approval of all Allies, to clear the way for the subsequent ratification process. Yet after the official accession applications had been submitted, Turkey raised its concerns against signing the accession protocols, publicly citing its national interests, which led many to foresee a lengthy negotiation process. Despite a joint memorandum by the three countries on the eve of the Summit, however, Turkey had not yet given up its opposition until the publication of this article. Hungary’s consent to the accession was also still pending, meaning that the historic step from the long-standing and societally deeply rooted neutrality of the two Scandinavian countries to NATO membership had not yet been completed.
Both countries will contribute substantially to improving the quality of NATO’s collective defense capabilities. They have modern, well-equipped, effective and well-trained armed forces, which for many years have participated in exercises, trainings and international crisis management missions in close cooperation with NATO allies. Sweden also has its own defense industry with high-quality capabilities. Not least, both countries have experience of dealing with Russia. As the years ahead will likely be marked by a continuing confrontation with Moscow, this regional operational knowledge on the one hand, and the existing capabilities for warfare in climatically challenging conditions on the other, including in the Arctic region, should benefit NATO. The combined capabilities of the Finnish and Swedish air, land and naval forces will also enhance the defense of the particularly vulnerable Baltic states and reduce the burden on other NATO members.
Political adaptation: core elements of the new Strategic Concept
After 2014, NATO’s ongoing adaptation process initially took place mostly at the military level. On the political level, by contrast, there was relatively little movement. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President also raised doubts as to the reliability of the Alliance’s militarily strongest member state. As early as 2017, the then President-elect called NATO “obsolete”. It was in this context that his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron finally announced the Alliance’s “brain death” two years later , calling on Europe to become more sovereign in security and defense policy, and more independent of the United States. At the NATO Summit in London shortly thereafter – which was intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Alliance – the Allies were barely able to agree on a short summit declaration.
Nevertheless, it was this same London Declaration that provided the impetus for a reflection process under the auspices of the NATO Secretary General, “to further strengthen NATO’s political dimension”. This led to the NATO 2030 reflection process, in which the Allies worked with external experts, parliamentarians, civil society and youth representatives to develop ideas to make the Alliance “even stronger politically”. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, whose final declaration was ten times the length of its London predecessor, the results of this process were translated into a series of concrete decisions. Among other things, the Allies made commitments to strengthen resilience and enhance technological cooperation; to consult more with each other and cooperate more with partners; to mitigate and adapt better to climate change; and to develop a new Strategic Concept for NATO.
At the NATO Madrid Summit in June 2022, the adoption of the new Strategic Concept finally established – with some delay – the policy framework for the Alliance’s ongoing military adaptation. Thus, at the highest strategic level, the document now acknowledges the changed security environment that has been driving the Alliance’s military adaptation since 2014: the Euro-Atlantic area is “not at peace”, and Russia is “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” Even the possibility of an attack on NATO Alliance territory can no longer be ruled out.Based on this threat assessment, “collective security” is the “key purpose and greatest responsibility” of the Alliance; all other activities of the Alliance should contribute to the fulfillment of this purpose. However, the document also explicitly emphasizes that, contrary to the Russian view, NATO does not seek military confrontation and maintains a purely defensive character. In accordance with the threat analysis, the emphasis on “collective defense” serves solely to protect Allied territory. Within this framework, NATO’s three core tasks from the predecessor concept of 2010 remain in place in a slightly modified form: deterrence and defense; crisis prevention and management; and cooperative security. However, in line with the comprehensive military adaptation since 2014, here too the section on deterrence and defense is the most detailed and ambitious. For example, the Allies commit to “significantly strengthen [their] deterrence and defense posture to deny any potential adversary any possible opportunities for aggression.” Consistent with the ongoing strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank, the Allies will “ensure a substantial and persistent presence on land, at sea, and in the air,” including “robust in-place, multi-domain, combat-ready forces”.
If the Strategic Concept provides the overdue political framework for a security environment characterized by Russian aggression and the resulting military adaptation since 2014, it also goes far beyond this acute threat. As a longer-term strategic document, it is intended to prepare the Alliance not only for existing challenges, but also for those of the coming decade. This is reflected in the way it addresses a range of new actors and challenges, some of which were identified in the course of the reflection process since 2019. Firstly, the document adapts the understanding of collective security in line with modern methods of warfare. For example, it states that “malicious cyber activities”, hostile operations to, from, or within space and hybrid operations “could reach the level of armed attack and could lead the North Atlantic Council to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.” Other more recent challenges also find consideration as cross-cutting issues: priorities such as enhanced resilience, maintaining Allies’ technological edge, mitigating and adapting to climate change, human security and the Women, Peace and Security agenda are to be promoted across all NATO tasks.
Secondly, the Strategic Concept identifies “authoritarian actors” as new challengers to the Alliance’s “interests, values and democratic way of life.” Not only Moscow but also China is explicitly mentioned in this context. In the 2019 London Declaration, NATO only briefly mentioned the opportunities and challenges posed by Beijing. In contrast, the new Strategic Concept presents a detailed breakdown of the “political, economic and military tools” that China employs to challenge the Allies’ “interests, security and values”. It also lays out what NATO’s intended response to these challenges: a mix of constructive engagement, increased awareness and resilience, but also the willingness to “ensure NATO’s enduring ability to guarantee the defence and security of Allies” and “stand up for our shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation.”
Challenges and risks
The new Strategic Concept – like NATO’s enlargement and military adaptation – is ambitious. The Alliance aims to significantly strengthen its deterrence and defense posture in view of the threat presented by Russia, while at the same time preparing for a broad spectrum of new challenges. This balancing act between adaptation and foresight is particularly evident in the Strategic Concept. Facing the acute threat of a revisionist power waging a conventional war of aggression on European soil, the document places collective defense at the heart of the Alliance. However, it would be negligent in view of the current Russian war to ignore the above-mentioned foreseeable changes in the security environment. And so the document weaves these newer themes into NATO’s existing task portfolio under the umbrella of collective defense, without undertaking a fundamental realignment.
Even this intelligent compromise solution runs the risk of placing ever greater demands on the Alliance, with an ever-widening scope of tasks. The implementation of the ambitious goals of NATO’s military and political adaptation already requires considerable resources and continuing common political will among the Allies. The anticipated accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO adds further challenges. On the one hand, it represents an improvement in the Alliance’s strategic position, but it also comes with new military requirements. The mere fact that Finland has a 1,348-kilometer border with Russia increases the danger of a possible escalation in the spheres of influence and interest proclaimed by Russia. Although Stockholm and Helsinki have so far been reluctant to permanently station NATO troop contingents, capabilities or headquarters on their own soil, their temporary presence will certainly increase with joint exercises and training segments. Given Russian failures in Ukraine, further conflict escalation due to increased presence alone or a massing of Russian military capabilities along the soon-to-be new Allied external border seems unlikely at the moment. However, except for the two areas around Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg, the Baltic is becoming a de facto internal sea for NATO. Due to the geopolitical and geoeconomic relevance of the Baltic Sea region for Russia, this adds further lines of conflict. The military capabilities of Sweden and Finland are also permanently within the effective range of the Russian military, although this is partly offset by the fact that their accession places their own surveillance and weapons systems at the Alliance’s disposal, enabling it to react defensively to a threat early on. This makes the regionally focused coordination of NATO activities and their balancing with the overarching deterrence policy – which has been discussed for years – all the more important.
The obstruction by individual Allies of the accession of the two Scandinavian states highlights another fundamental challenge for the Alliance: as a consensus organization, NATO can live up to its high demands and ambitions only as long as there is unity among its member states. In the coming years, it will likely have to deal with further attempts by individual Allies to hold up the implementation of certain decisions in order to advance their own goals. Yet this ultimately unavoidable due to the consensus principle underlying almost all NATO decisions; and given the Alliance’s decades of experience in finding diplomatic solutions to such blocking tactics, and the impressive unity shown by the Allies since Russia’s February invasion, this risk still seems limited.
Substantial differences challenging the foundations of NATO – the much-vaunted transatlantic bond – would be more problematic. In the wake of the Russian war of aggression, the United States has invested considerable resources supporting Ukraine and strengthening NATO’s eastern flank in Europe. From January to October 2022, the value of U.S. assistance to Ukraine was nearly twice that of the support measures of all EU countries and institutions combined. In the medium to long term, however, Washington’s political focus will increasingly turn to the Indo-Pacific and China. As a result, politically sensitive issues of transatlantic burden-sharing and Europe’s responsibility for its own defense – which already strained the Alliance during Trump’s presidency – could become more pressing. In recognition of these challenges, the Defence Investment Pledge (DIP) will be at the center of discussions at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius in 2023. The DIP spells out the goal the Allies set themselves back in 2014 of committing at least 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) to defense spending, of which at least 20% should be invested in major equipment. But there is now increasingly talk at NATO that the two percent target should be “the floor, not the ceiling” of national defense spending. Whereas observers noted a race to reach the two-percent mark and a “blaming and shaming” of stragglers following the 2014 DIP decision, it now seems that a warmup for a three-percent race is already underway. At the same time, in view of growing economic difficulties due to the pandemic and the war, it is not likely to become any easier for many European countries to push through larger defense budgets domestically.
Calls to strengthen the European pillar within NATO lead in turn to more fundamental questions about the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, particularly the role of the European Union (EU) in Europe’s security and defense policy. The EU, with its extensive non-military competencies, is indeed better positioned than NATO to deal with certain newer challenges – particularly hybrid threats – and could relieve NATO in this area. But NATO-EU cooperation brings its own set of issues – from U.S. concerns about a potential inefficient duplication of structures, to Central and Eastern European apprehensions that greater EU involvement could undermine NATO and indispensable U.S. security guarantees. This is probably the reason why a new joint NATO-EU declaration has not yet materialized, even though it has been on the policy agenda for some time. Despite these difficulties, analysts point out that a window of opportunity for closer cooperation between the two organizations seems to be opening. Following the accession of Finland and Sweden, all but four EU member states will also belong to NATO, which should facilitate coordination. Meanwhile, the Biden administration seems to welcome a strengthening of European defense capacity to relieve the burden on Washington. After all, both organizations have already acted in coordination in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine, demonstrating that pragmatic cooperation is possible in a crisis. If the Russian war of aggression has accelerated NATO’s necessary adaptation to a changing security environment, the current crisis could also become the driver of a more comprehensive modernization of the European security architecture.
Anna Clara Arndt is Research Assistant in the research group “International Security” at the German Institute for National and Security Affairs (SWP). She works on deterrence and nuclear issues. Previously, she was Carlo Schmid Fellow at the Policy Planning Unit, NATO Headquarters. She has a M.Sc. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a M.A. in International Security from Sciences Po Paris.
Commander Göran Swistek
Commander Göran Swistek is Visiting Fellow in the research group “Security Policy” at the German Institute for National and Security Affairs (SWP). His research focuses on international security and defense policy, maritime forces and navies, maritime security, NATO and defense planning. In his career in the German Armed Forces, he has served in various assignments within NATO and in the German Navy in the field of NATO defense planning.