A New Defense Posture for Europe: Minimum defense, Maximum deterrence

By Rob de Wijk

European NATO and EU member states need to develop a Strategic Autonomy doctrine based on a Common European defense and Security Policy.

President Trump has repeatedly accused the Europeans for not doing enough for their own defense and has threatened to withdraw America’s commitment to the defense of Europe.

But how strong is this commitment in practice?  In reality, America’s vital interests are threatened in Asia, not in Europe. For this reason former President Barak Obama already announced a strategic pivot to Asia in 2011. Due to global power shifts, America’s strategic orientation to the East is likely to be permanent and unrelated to Trump. However, due to his unpredictability and erratic behavior, Trump inflicts irreparable damage to the credibility of America’s security commitment. For all those reasons, America’s security guarantees to Europe are weak at best.

Take the 4,500 troops of the NATO multinational battle groups reinforced by British, French, Polish forces and American deployments under the European Deterrence Initiative and Operation Atlantic Resolve. They are still no match for the 400,000 troops of the Russian Western Military District. Of rhat number, 65.000 are deployed in close proximity of the Baltic States.

The key issue is that troop movements have become increasingly vulnerable. Due to advances in military technology, Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), harbors, airfields and propositioned stocks have become more vulnerable.

Then there is the abandonment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, has triggered the development of new Russian weapons systems for the European theater, making matters even worse for Europe’s security.

 Furthermore, the EU-concept of Military Mobility is unlikely to solve the problem of rapid reinforcement. It is easy to abolish bureaucratic border-crossing obstacles on paper, but it is highly unlikely that Europe’s infrastructure –roads, bridges and rails – can cope with tanks, artillery pieces and other heavy equipment. Bridges might collapse, flatcars might not be available and European nations are unlikely to make the necessary investments any time soon.

Finally, for reasons of crisis stability, moving reinforcements on the continent from west to east could be extremely dangerous. In times of crisis, Russia might believe that an attack is imminent and might respond with a preemptive attack. The issue of reinforcements necessitates fundamental rethinking of the requirements of European security.

What is the solution? As force-on-force confrontations in Europe will completely destroy parts of the continent, a Cold War approach focusing on achieving the right ‘correlation of forces’ is meaningless. What is needed is a min-max posture.

Europe must bring its defense posture in line with strategic realities. I propose a collective defense posture of minimal defense and maximal deterrence. This posture requires European NATO and EU member states to develop a Strategic Autonomy doctrine based on a Common European defense and Security Policy and to define America’s role in Europe’s defense.

Collective defense could be based on the following premises:

  • Abandon the idea of transatlantic reinforcements in times of crisis and the certainty of America’s security assurances.
  • Abandon the notion of traditional force-on-force wars in Europe and rely on a limited number of ‘trip wire’ land forces and a small back up of reinforcements and air power for defensive purposes. Those forces should be non-threatening, enhance crisis stability and underscore the message that failure of deterrence will have grave consequences.
  • Revitalize the OSCE crisis mechanisms, e.g. the mechanism for risk reduction, early warning and the peaceful settlement of disputes. This should be complemented with a successor to the 1990 Charter of Paris, including recognition of spheres of influence.
  • Enhance resilience of the populace en homeland defense to counter hybrid threats, such as information operations.
  • If deterrence fails, Europe should rely on offensive cyber capabilities and delivery systems with conventional and nuclear warheads that can penetrate Russian Anti Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. This requires reliance on French and British nuclear weapons and probably the development of a ‘European nuclear bomb’.

The land, air and sea component can be implemented right now, but requires additional investment in hardened Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. But relying solely on minimal defense forces without credible deterrence and the political will to use nuclear weapons if conflict termination fails is highly dangerous and an outright invitation of aggression.

For non-Article 5 operations coercion remains important. This could require:

  • A new concept of coercive diplomacy that relies on non-military offensive capabilities, including cyber warfare, information campaigns, destabilization operations and sanctions.
  • Ground forces for stabilization missions and the defense of vital interests outside the NATO area.
  • Strong naval forces for defense of trade routes and limited SLOC protection.

If spend wisely, the present collective European defense budget of US$264 billion should be enough to safeguard Europe’s security. As a matter of fact, this also includes the funds for stabilization missions as well as capabilities for small-scale operations in distant theaters to defend Europe’s vital interests or support America.

Rob de Wijk